I wrote the original version of the below a few years back when I was Writer in Residence for the Toronto Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association. With a few updates, which I have now made, it is still relevant for us authors. So here goes.
Plotting Your Way Through Your Story
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. — Kurt Vonnegut, science fiction writer
Vonnegut describes the fiction writer perched at the computer. The writer is ready to roll with the plot. Sometimes he soars, but sometimes his wings get clipped.
Let’s look at some baddies in fiction plotting.
A literary magazine editor once scrawled on one of my short stories, “This is not a short story. This is an incident.”
A novel that I evaluated contained quirky characters. However, they solved everything too easily and their relationships, including the love relationship, had no problems.
In another novel, the author tried to carry most of the plot with dialogue. Dialogue is good for showing the reader rather than overdoing the narration. But you can overkill with dialogue too.
In another novel, the author had created a certain atmosphere from the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the plot resembled those 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that you finally toss out in a garage sale.
Kurt Vonneget describes plot as
I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. … And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other.
The characteristics of a good plot are:
A protagonist or main character with a conflict to resolve. The characters drive the plot. Let them struggle to get there. Life may be a bowl of cherries, but the characters need to experience the pits.
The plot moves forward, usually chronologically, although some flashbacks can work. If you get lost, use Doug Lawson’s rule, i.e., figuring out where the characters would rather not go.
Events must be connected, not random and they must link from one event to another with some purpose.
The plot must be believable, whether commercial or literary fiction. Your story line may seem unbelievable, but you make it believable by suspending the reader’s disbelief. Think “X Files.”
Their must be a climax, whether it’s a moral one in the protagonist’s mind or the opposite extreme, such as a sword fight. Think protagonist and antagonist together at the edge of a cliff – for an analogy.
The plot must have some resolution in the end. With series mystery novels, something, perhaps in the main characters’ personal lives, is often left hanging for the next novel. But the main plot must be resolved or you cheat the reader.
And the usual, if you click on the Beyond Faith book cover at the beginning, you go to a link with more info including a bit about its twisted plot.
Sharon A. Crawford