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Basics | Nuts and Bolts | Plot (what happens and why)

I had a feeling you would be drawn to this article. I certainly would be if I were perusing this website looking for something useful to get me going. You may find comfort that you are not alone in the difficulty writers face when trying to figure out what happens.

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

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 resisted advice on plots because I believed that to be original I needed to avoid the tired clichés written about in books that do the outlining for you.

One day I broke down and opened a book promising the basics of twenty plots. It had a useful introduction shattering the myth that there are only two or five or seven or fill-in- the-blank number of plots because the possibilities are endless.

The author defined the difference between a story and a plot. (In stories, stuff simply happens; plots happen for a reason.) And then he shared the sort of thing I had been avoiding which was generic formulas depending on what type of book you are writing.

Action has this...
Drama has...
Love Stories....


Already I knew my book didn’t fit into the parameters he had outlined. I could see it being useful to someone with absolutely no starting point. But I was already underway with something that defied many of his rules.

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

Out of curiosity I tried Mariner’s software for outlining screenplays. I was a little disgusted to realize Hollywood really did have the equivalent to the four chord song, but soon realized it wasn’t for me. Mariner had done their research and if you want to follow in the footsteps of blockbusters it could help. But I wanted something more unique.

I overcame my plot problem on attempt five version two. Over the course of a year the workings of one book became three, then six, then eight (now four). But after writing over a thousand keepable pages 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 so each character may want something different, even if they are on the same team. That’s where the complication happens 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?)

There is only one answer to the question of “what happens next?”

Conflict. Lots of it. The more the better.

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 it do to a coke can? Okay the last one is a bit out there but its a cool video. The point is, get to know the struggle in detail. Ideas will follow.

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Last updated May 6th, 2017

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