I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.
One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.
What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.
Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:
- Who is my protagonist?
- What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stay-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
- Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
- What does my protagonist want?
- What stands in the way of achieving it?
Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.
The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.
In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.
Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.
We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.
In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.
We also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.
The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.
The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.
Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
- Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.