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Tip of The Day #11: Stir the Plot

According to Ready, Set, Novel by Chris Baty, et. al., "Conflict is the fuel that moves your plot forward. And we're not talking about one big blowout at the climax. Exciting plots have characters encountering problems right from the get-go. Think of the last comedy you saw....the main character had to get himself out of one pickle after another until he had to wiggle his way out of the there's-no-way-he's-going- to-get-himself-out-of-this-pickle pickle at the climax of the film. The same should go for your book. Creating mini-problems to build up to the mega problem is the best way to keep writers reading." 

But just creating problems isn't enough. The problems must also serve a purpose in propelling the protagonist forward, otherwise, you have action and drama, but still lack a plot.

From the website Men With Pens Taylor Lindstrom states:

"The plot of any story can more or less be summed up thusly:

  • Your protagonist wants something.
  • He or she is unable to achieve it, for whatever reason.
  • He or she achieves what was desired or fails to achieve it at all.

The Critical Missing Element in Most Plots

Once you’ve established what your characters want, you need to establish why they want it. These things go hand-in-hand.

Captain Ahab wants to kill the white whale because the white whale cut off his leg (he’s got a point). Da Vinci Code: Robert wants to solve the mystery because someone was murdered (initially) but also because he is a professor of these matters and he must know. Bridget Jones's Diary: Bridget wants a boyfriend because, well, she’s a pretty shallow chick, so let’s say status. The Lord of The Rings-Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring because the world will be cast into chaos and ugliness if he doesn’t.

This helps readers know what’s propelling characters’ actions throughout your story. Either characters support your protagonist in their quest for whatever, or they get in the way somehow.

Dude, My Plot Is Way More Complicated Than That

Think your plot is more complex than that? I hate to break it to you, but it really isn’t. Even the most convoluted plot structures break down to this point.

The only exception (and it’s not really an exception) are plots where there is more than one protagonist, in which case each of the protagonists may have a separate goal.

Of course, if your protagonists’ goals do not interrelate in any way, then you have two separate stories. (emphasis mine)  Usually two parallel plotlines coincide in that a single character wants a certain goal and the other character does not. Or, conversely, the characters want the same goal, but for different reasons. It’s up to us as readers to determine who has a better reason.

Either way, it’s still the same plot: Want, inability to achieve, then achievement or lack thereof.

If there is a character or a situation that does not serve your central character’s goal, it does not belong in the story.

So go ask yourself these questions, and see how much clearer your story becomes:

  • What is my main character’s goal?
  • What are my minor characters’ goals?
  • How are my minor characters’ pursuits of their goals contributing to my main character’s pursuit of his/her goal?

If you can’t answer these questions easily, then you don’t have characters. You have stick figures. What’s worse, you don’t have a plot."

So go stir your plot, and if you're lucky, it'll thicken...