So you want to write a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a more different kind of play. Or a short story. Or a poem that is also a story but also it’s a poem.
You need a plot.
No good stories exist without plot. Our lives don’t exist without plot. Plot is the evolutionary byproduct of being three-dimensional beings capable of experiencing a four-dimensional universe. You’re plot. I’m plot. Everything you ever experienced is plot.
Unfortunately, not every plot we experience in the ordinary course of living makes a good story. You might love the memory of lying on a beach, drinking mai tais and caring about absolutely nothing, but nobody wants to read that book.
Here are seven questions you need to ask about your plot.
1. What does each character want?
Characters can want more than one thing. They can want conflicting things. They can even believe they want one thing, but act from an unconscious desire to really get another thing. But if a character wants nothing, strike them from the story. They don’t matter. They may as well not exist.
What your characters want is going to drive the plot. It’s going to be the thing that makes them react in certain ways to other characters and obstacles. And it’s going to matter at the climax. (More on this in a moment.)
So know what each character wants more than anything. Make a spreadsheet. Write it on your bedroom walls. But be clear on it.
2. How do I stop my main character from getting what they want?
Take a look at your protagonist. What do they want? Now, how can other elements in the story (outside events, other characters’ wants, etc.) stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it? How else can you stop them from getting it?
3. How will my main character overcome those obstacles?
Once you have the first two problems in place, start looking for ways the protagonist can address them. Include both positive, helpful options (making friends with another character! Learning a thing! Asking for directions!) and counterproductive ones (pretending not to feel a thing! Drinking too much! Punching someone!).
4. What problems do the character’s choice of “overcoming” tactic create?
A good rule of thumb is that each problem the protagonist solves should create two new problems. And the best problems are those that run right up against the protagonist’s desires, beliefs, or sense of self.
This is where maladaptive, jury-rigged, or “good enough” solutions to problems—the kind that depend on inaccurate information or assumptions from the protagonist—become very useful (and also very interesting). The solution is good enough for now, but sooner or later, it won’t be.
5. Does the story end with the protagonist getting what they want, or nah?
If it does, the story can broadly be classified (in the ancient Greek sense) as a “comedy.” If it doesn’t, it’s a “tragedy.”
a. If yes, what realization does the protagonist have that allows them to get what they want? This change needs to come from within the protagonist: that they are strong enough, that the ordinary-looking sword is actually the magical McGuffin Blade, or that the real treasure was the friends they made along the way.
b. If nah, what challenge proves too formidable for the protagonist to defeat or divert? Turns out that you die if you drink poison. Thanks for the heads-up, Romeo/Gertrude/Claudius/Hamlet.
6. What kind of person does the protagonist become as a result of #5?
Specifically, what kind of person does the protagonist become that they weren’t (or didn’t realize they were) when the story began? What changed?
If your character doesn’t seem to change much or you can’t figure out how they change, your character isn’t developed enough yet. Go back to question #1. Do not make us read Twilight again.
7. I get all this, but the real treasure is the friends we make along the way, right?
I’m a writer. What do I know about humans?
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