Posted in writing

Creating a Plot

Plot is often the one element that makes or breaks a story. Essentially, plot is conflict. Even in existentialist stories, the conflict is often hidden in the discussion of what life and existence means. For almost every other story out there, the conflict is easier to see.

Usually the basic plot structure is something along the lines of Character wants something and someone or something is stopping them from getting it. There are several variations of the basic plot premise as well, such as:

  • Character must stop someone or something from happening.
  • Something has happened to change Character’s life and they must adapt.
  • Someone broke something and Character must do something to fix it.
  • Character must complete a task or face severe consequences.

Regardless of your variation, your plot is driven by your conflict. Knowing that makes it easier to create a plot. There’s three simple questions you can use to help find your plot, even if you don’t have a plot structure yet.

  • What is your conflict?
  • Who is trying to resolve the conflict and why?
  • What actions are they taking to resolve it?

For example: the three little pigs. The wolf wants to eat the pigs, which the pigs don’t want. Character (the Wolf) wants something (to eat the pigs) which someone or something (the pigs) is stopping them from getting. Just by looking at that, you already know who’s involved and can take a pretty good guess at why these characters are specifically involved. The wolf is hungry and the pigs want to stay alive. That leaves you just one question to answer.

What actions are they taking to resolve it?

In most forms of the story, the pigs try to protect themselves by building houses. First of straw, then of sticks, then of bricks. Their actions cause the wolf to react, mostly by huffing and puffing to blow the houses down. Depending on the version of your story, the wolf either wears himself into exhaustion and is killed by a hunter or woodsman while the pigs keep their hooves clean, or his efforts to blow the brick house down somehow injure and kill him without anyone else interfering.

However your wolf comes to an end, the actions he takes to reach that end still create your plot. If you’re a planning-type writer, those actions can be plugged directly into your preferred story structure. If you’re finding gaps between those actions, remember that your characters will react to each event.

Back to our example: the first pig reacts to the destruction of his house by running to his brother’s house. The wolf reacts to that by chasing (and potentially getting a two-for-one meal). Upon arriving at another house, he uses the same action that worked the first time, forcing both pigs to react, again by running away.

These actions and reactions create the try-fail cycles which push your plot forward. The pigs tried and failed to protect themselves with simple houses. The wolf tried and nearly succeeded at catching the pigs by blowing their houses down.

Although creating a plot can be work intensive, at it’s base, you’re dealing with conflict. Take a look at your own story and ask yourself the above questions. What is the conflict? Who is trying to resolve the conflict and why? What actions are they taking to resolve it?

Posted in General

Starting in the Middle

Beginnings are under a lot of pressure. They’re incredibly important because that’s where readers start. In general, you have about eight seconds to capture a reader’s attention. That means you have maybe a page to not only catch your reader’s attention, but to keep them invested in your story. For that to happen, your beginning needs to do a lot in those first couple of pages.

Which is why when you first start writing, it might help to take that pressure off the story and just start in the middle. Drop your characters right into the first big crisis and take it from there.

The point of doing this is that you have to start somewhere, but rather than bogging yourself down with setting up the scenes and character descriptions, you’re getting right into the meat of the story. It takes pressure off by ignoring all the things a beginning has to do and focusing instead on the story.

The other benefit of doing this is that when you’ve made it to ‘the end’ you can come back to the beginning with a clearer purpose. You’ll already know what the end is, which makes it easier to decide which details are the most important for the beginning pages.

Jumping into the middle of the story usually works best for earlier drafts and rewrites. It might also help if as your drafts progress you find your beginnings are still lacking—it can help you cut through and realize which parts of exposition can be completely skipped, or help highlight when you’ve started a story too early.  Even if you’re in the later stages of editing, give it a try! It might just be the kick your story needs.

Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?