Plotting Your Novel

Plotting your story takes attention to detail. Whichever comes first for you, the plot or the characters, the characters need to be believable in the plot. Or maybe the plot needs to be believable for the characters. Six of one, half dozen of another. As long as your readers end up believing.

Plot - What is it and How do I get one?

It is my personal belief plotting is hard work and there isn't any way to make it easy, so if you're looking for easy, you won't find it here. What you'll find here is my approach and the process I go through to arrive at a story that editors want to buy. I urge you-- no, make that plead with you-- to think really, really hard about you read here. Even if, perhaps even especially if, you find this doesn't work for you, figuring out why it doesn't work for you will help you discover what will.

The time you take to absorb and digest and bring yourself to an understanding of the issues is worth every agonizing minute. I swear.

Some Preliminaries

Because it's convenient, I'll define Plot as "Your Story in a Nutshell." Which leaves the hard part in need of another term which I have decided to call The Story.

Think of your plot as a container and your story as what will fill the container.

One more thing to say up front is I'm not going to be telling you exactly how go about this. Some people do extensive brainstorming before they write a word, others go straight to the writing in order to get a handle on things. There is no right answer (or if there is, I don't know it yet), but I suspect that the less thinking you do beforehand, the more re-writing and adjusting you need to do later, a situation that is neither bad nor good, UNLESS you mistake the need for re-writing for failure.

Plot: What your story is about.

Some Examples of Plots

  1. Boy Meets Girl
  2. Secret Baby
  3. Marriage of Convenience
  4. Marriage for the sake of Honor

Well, that's all folks. (OK, not really) Your plot can be anything. Space aliens inhabiting your doormat, a man who leaps tall buildings in a single bound, a woman in love with her best friend's brother. If it's so easy, how come writers agonize and despair over plot? Because they're not really agonizing over the plot, they're agonizing over the story. This proccess is commonly referred to as plotting because "story-ing" is a really awkward word.

Plots need a story in order to be told and stories need motivation and set-up and that's hard. Space aliens inhabit my doormat. How? Why? What happens when I step on the doormat? What do the aliens look like? The devil is in the details.

Plots require that things happen. Thus, the plot of "Boy Meets Girl" requires that a boy meets a girl. Secret Baby: A man doesn't know a former lover has had his baby. Marriage of Convenience: Two people get married for convenience. That's the easy part. The way these things happen distinguish your story from other stories with the exact same plot, and that's the hard part. What does that mean? It means But What Happens? It means, how does your story carry out the plot?

Let's say the plot of your story is the tried and true "Marriage of Convenience." In order to write a story with this plot, you need detail. Lots and lots of detail. Unfortunately, not just any detail will do. Picking just the right detail is hard work. And deciding how to present those details is even harder. (I did say plotting is hard work.)

Elementary, my Dear Watson

Without changing the subject entirely, once you know the details of your story, you will have to decide how to convey them. How you do this depends on more than just the scenes in your story, things like characterization, theme, whether your story is a comic one or not, etc. In brief, you need to present the elements of your story in such a way that in each and every scene something new or additional is at stake. That said, onward because this is about plotting (arriving at the details of your story.)

For the sake of convenience, let's say a story "element" is more or less the equivilant of a scene.

The elements of your story require:

  • Motivation
  • Set-up - usually in a prior scene
  • Something at stake

Motivation, Set up and the Something at Stake Help Determine the Elements.

Absolutely, this is circular. Start with whatever seems easiest to you. If you start with a scene, such as your heroine goes shopping, this element needs motivation and set-up. If you start with a motivation such as your heroine needs clothes, then you need to establish why she needs clothes (set up). In order for the shopping scene to be exciting to read, there needs to be something at stake. Someone challenges her in some way, she trips over the hero, just as long as it's something.

Given sufficient set-up and motivation, anything can happen. Absolutely anything.

Motivation Defined

This is the general principle you need to internalize.

I define motivation as the convincing reason for the things that happen in your story, and mostly for the stuff the characters do. This cannot be over-emphasized. If the motivation is not convincing, your story will suck. This is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Does the motivation require a certain kind of character? Or does a certain kind of character require a specific motivation? The answer is - whatever works for you. Just make sure the character fits the motivation. Or that the motivation fits the character.

As I've said, motivation must be convincing and in order for that to be true, you should deconstruct the motivation. Get in there and get anal. Confront as many possibilities as you can think of.

What follows is explanation and example for the statement above. It's one way of arriving at a scene that has motivation.

Let's assume your handsome hero enters a marriage of convenience.

A Quick Definition of Convenience

Just to keep things simple, let's define a marriage of convenience as a marriage wherein both hero and heroine get married because each thinks they will get something they want and that something is NOT love.

Back to Deconstructing Motivation

Ok. Why does your handsome hero enter a marriage of convenience? There are a gazillion reasons why. He needs money. He loves someone else and thinks it doesn't matter who he marries. It's December 15 and he has to be married by Christmas in order to inherit his uncle's money. He's a good guy and wants to do someone else a favor. On and on. Choose whatever you want. But! It's more complicated than that. The motivation should be fully deconstructed so that you know who and what you're going to be writing about. Which way you approach this depends upon the kind of writer you are. Maybe you need to work more on the Who, or maybe Who doesn't need work it's the What. Maybe you adjust both. Just as long as the characters and motivations fit together.

Let's take the first possible motivation. Handsome Hero enters a marriage of convenience because he needs money. What does that tell you about your hero? On its face, the glaring answer is that he values money over love. So your story is about a man who values money over love. Oh. That doesn't work for you because your hero is a romantic? Then keep deconstructing. Why would a romantic man marry for convenience instead of love? List the possibilities, deconstruct them, find a situation that allows you have a romantic hero marry for convenience instead of love. Keep going until you are satisfied the motivation is rock solid.

But Wait! There's More!

Handsome Hero's motivation for a marriage of convenience implies something about the woman he will marry, primarily that she, too, values something more than love, otherwise, she wouldn't marry for convenience. Deconstruct the heroine and her motivations. What is that something? Safety? Companionship? Children? Social Status? Pity? Please don't let it be stupidity. Sorry, but plotting is hard work.

A Brief Digression on TSTL

TSTL means "To Stupid To Live" A character is TSTL only when the writer has not provided sufficient motivation and set up for her (or his) actions.

Back to But Wait! There's More!

The heroine's motivation for a marriage of convenience implies something about the man she will marry. (Hopefully, this sounds familiar.) Let's say the heroine's motivation for a marriage of convenience is that icky Cousin Fred is after her money. (Yes, you must give Cousin Fred motivation for wanting her money.) Therefore, the heroine must reasonably believe that Handsome Hero can protect her from icky Cousin Fred, who, by the way, wouldn't mind stooping to murder to get what he wants. And this leads us neatly into Part 2 - Set up.

Your assignment

Examine your hero's motivations for what he does. Deconstruct his motivations and make sure each element is convincing.

Extra Credit

Do the same thing with the rest of your characters.

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