Forget What You Know About Plot

Writing a novel can be an overwhelming feat. There are so many things to consider before even putting words to the page: genre, tense, setting, style, voice.

Some writers claim the beginning is the hardest to write and it’s why many people stop before getting too far. I disagree. The toughest part of writing anything is planning it.

I’m horrible when it comes to outlining anything. I spent eight long years in university and still have trouble outlining essays, and when someone asks me a direct question, I feel like I have to go on a crazy tangent for them to understand my answer.

The plot of a novel – the backbone of a great story – is in how it’s outlined.

Remember that nifty mountain-like sketch we all learned in high-school? The one that looks like this:

Forget that shit. Print it out. Crumple it up. And burn it.

Unless you were super lucky, your English teacher was probably not a novelist, and may never have written a novel in their life. This plot outline is garbage and kept me hung up on the plot of nearly every novel I tried to write. Why? Because the plot outline isn’t realistic or detailed enough for proper guidance.

Even the classic hero journey has more bumps than that up and down training-wheels plot we were taught when we were in high-school. So, forget about it. Let’s get down to the real hard-hitting points.

 

The 8 Steps

So I’ve been writing this darn fantasy/sci-fi series for nearly 20 years now. The reason it’s taken me so long is that my plot sucked and I didn’t know how to jump over the gaping holes. This exercise helped me find the broken links in my story and make it stronger.

First things first, do your best to remain unbiased when going through these steps. It will do you no good to go into this weighed down by character backstory and drama. Like in yoga, clear your mind, have a glass of wine (cheers!) and push forward:

1. What Is The Story’s Goal?

Like in any great story, you should know what the outcome or goal of the journey will be from the very start (and your reader should at least have a sense of it). This goal can be anything from something tangible like procuring a rare artifact from an ancient tomb; or something intangible like coming to terms with a past trauma.

No matter the goal this is the driving force of your main character. Your character will do almost anything to achieve this goal. So, what is it for your main character?

If you have more than one main character, define a separate goal for each character. In a few more steps you’ll begin to see how these characters might begin to conflict with each other, get in each other’s way, and essentially challenge one another to achieve their goal.

Example:

The main character Jane is a math teacher who must find a life partner at the end of the story.

 

2. What Are The Consequences?

There’s no conflict without consequences. If your readers don’t know what’s at stake, then why would they care if the goal is achieved or not?

What will the consequences be if the goal is not achieved? The characters of your story may know or even wonder at the consequences. For instance, if an ancient artifact is not collected by the end of the story then it may be found by a corporation who uses its powers for evil.

Our consequence here is pure speculation, but we at least know that the prospect of someone else getting the artifact (ie. our goal not being achieved) will result in something bad happening for the character and possibly others as well.

Consequences can be powerful. They motivate your character to take action and sacrifices, and most of all they create suspense for the reader.

Example:

If Jane does not find a life partner she will grow old and die alone.

 

3. What Are The Requirements?

In other words, what must be accomplished in order to achieve the goal? The character must face some obstacles and challenges. These requirements are the catalysts for character development in the story and how they deal with these bumps in the road will determine what kind of person they are.

A relatable character will probably fall and fail a few times until they are able to figure out how to get past their requirement. This revelation spurs a new understanding of their world and helps them move forward in the plot. This will also give your readers a feeling of momentum (story progression).

Example:

Jane must join dating services, which charge monthly fees, and she feels she needs to get a makeover to put her best foot forward.

 

4. What Are The Forewarnings?

Forewarnings balance requirements. While requirements show that the story is progressing towards the goal, forewarnings show the consequence is getting closer. Forewarnings keep your readers at the edge of their seat and make them wonder if your protagonist will achieve the goal at all.

These events can include other character conflicts like we discussed above.

Example:

(Requirement) The monthly fee for dating service > Jane can only afford one month, putting a time limit on her current opportunity (Forewarning)

 

5. What Are The Costs?

What is your character willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his/her goal? These costs really define the kind of person your character is. You can create some excellent twists with this device. For instance, if your character is willing to kill someone to achieve a goal (revenge, money, etc) it can inform your reader and create some great unpredictable moments.

Example:

Jane can’t afford the dating service especially on a teacher’s salary, so she decides to cut work short, passing up a potential promotion, by a few minutes to join a free co-op rugby team to meet singles in her area.

 

6. What Are The Dividends?

Dividends are the unexpected outcome of a cost. A dividend can be positive or negative (genre dependant). It is something your character doesn’t expect and it comes as a result of the cost decisions they make throughout the story.

Example:

Jane realizes she has a talent for rugby and is a really good player. The coach recommends her to a semi-professional team that pays it’s players per game, giving her some extra cash, a new set of friends, and a boost in confidence.

 

7. What Are The Prerequisites?

A prerequisite is a minor event or obstacle that must be accomplished in order to achieve a requirement. This piece may seem redundant to requirements, but consider this: a requirement is just the goal of the prerequisite.

For instance, our archaeologist must collect a key to get into the tomb (requirement) where the artifact is stored. He must first pass a riddle that will unlock the room to get the key (prerequisite). We also see this in classics where the prince needs to battle a monster before reaching a key that will allow him access to the princess.

These prerequisites can be set by other character arcs as well. If you were to write a story with a conflict between two characters, they may face off at this point.

Example:

Jane must gets a new outfit to attend a party where she knows she will run into her crush.

 

8. What Are The Preconditions?

The last element to balance your plot outline is a minor version of forewarnings. Preconditions are small impediments in the plot. They are stipulations that make it more difficult for the overall goal to be achieved.

These hiccups in the plot can be laid down by other characters or any other outside forces. The task of the precondition is to make achieving the goal more challenging, stretching the limits of your character to a breaking point.

This element is great for creating tension, anxiety, and suspense in your reader.

Example:

The school board mandates its teachers must arrive at work at 6:00am, making it difficult for Jane to go out on weekday evenings.

 

 

The Completed Plot

If you worked through this with your own story in mind, you’ll hopefully see areas where your plot may be lacking an element. We can see with this example of Jane that even though the story has many moving parts (teacher, rugby, dating, parties, friendships, money problems) it is not difficult to get distracted from the ultimate goal: find Jane a life partner.

You may also notice that if we put these 8 pieces together using the example, that they begin to form a rough skeleton for a synopsis or back-cover blurb. This can be further refined into your novel’s 30-second elevator pitch (a useful tool to have in your back pocket if you’re ever interested in pitching your story to an agent or publisher).

Example:

“A teacher named Jane has a wake-up call when her elderly, spinster aunt dies alone (consequence). Jane decides that she wants to have a life partner to share her last moments with (goal). So she buys a new outfit and signs on with a dating service (prerequisites). Since she knows she cannot afford a long-term subscription, she declines to work extra hours, passing over for a potential promotion and joins a free, local rugby team (cost). She goes on several dates (requirements). But each one ends in disaster and her one-month subscription is running out (forewarnings). On top of that, the school board changes her schedule so she must arrive at work much earlier, making it difficult to stay out late on weeknights (preconditions). Along the way, however, she realizes she is a great rugby player and the coach recommends her to a paying semi-pro team giving her some extra cash, new friends, and a boost in confidence. (dividend).”

 

Hopefully, that helped you break through any plot trouble you were having. If you’re still stuck or have specific questions about your own story, comment below or send me an email.

 

 

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