Nuts & Bolts - Plot

The pure essence of: What, Why & How.

Transferred by Melissa Devlin on May 2nd, 2023

One of the greatest challenges a write faces, oddly, is just determining what happens.   

We get characters that show up uninvited. We know settings that are as real in our mind as our memories. And scenes, snippets, concepts and ideas fill our folders with notes. But somehow so many of us still don’t know what actually happens in the book.

What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth.

I was afflicted with this problem for years. The only way I knew how to get through was to barge on with draft after draft of truly crappy stories, tossing out concepts, crafting new ones. I believed that to be original I needed to avoid the tired clichés written about in books that do the outlining for you. But I didn’t know how to forge my own path.

One night while under the influence of insomnia I ordered a how-to guide and surprised myself when it arrived – I did not remember ordering it. I checked the book out, skimmed through the basics, and to this day do not remember a single word from inside it either. I was still writing a story with no direction, no arc, no cohesion.

I overcame my plot problem after slogging through thousands of pages. Yet I still didn’t think I had anything useful to share with another writer. I had found my method but I didn’t understand it.

Then a friend asked for advice, sent me the outline of his short story and suddenly I could narrow down exactly what a plot was, what it needs, and how to explain it to someone else. Know one, teach one as they say.  

I realized that the essence of every plot that ever was or will be written can be summed up in one paragraph.  

The mathematical plot definition:

 All plots need a character. All characters need conflict to progress.
Plot = Character wants X.
N gets in the way.
Character fights N.
 Character either does or does not get X.
Character may decide Y is better.
Character might be the villain.
Repeat and complicate.

That’s it. I’m serious.

All plots come down to the competing desires of the characters and the struggles they have fulfilling them.  

Now most books have more than one character and each character will want something different, even if they are on the same team. That’s where the complications happen and that is where you will find your unique plot. They could also get more than they bargained for if they do get X. That might be good, or that may be the next chapter. Repeat.

Your character’s may struggle with competing desires. Or necessities that they do not want to contend with. They could have internal problems, or someone or something may be getting in their way. Or the external conflict only serves to fuel the one inside his mind. A journey can be an adversary in the right circumstances. (Odyssey anyone?)

It may seem perverse but it makes sense if you consider what fiction is. Fiction is about people. And it is that which challenges us that builds us. Your characters are merely people you know better than your wife, mother, husband, father, best friend what have you. All you need to do is ask your characters what they want and get in their way. You might actually enjoy it.

If you are sitting there in frustration because you can't put the idea in action, ask yourself, who is the adversary here? What does he want? Tease out your story starting with your enemy - or natural disaster. If your story starts with a volcano, think physics. What function does molten lava serve the planet? How does it behave? What gets in the way of the flow? What does the flow get in the way of? Repeat and complicate.

Get to know your characters struggles in detail. Ideas will follow.