I can’t believe it’s November already! Many of you are probably geared up or already diving in to your NaNoWriMo projects bursting with energy and ideas. I decided this would be a perfect time to talk about one of the things that trips up a lot of new writers: plotting.
It’s an ongoing struggle, whether you’re writing your first novel, or your fifteenth, though most writers have figured out their plotting system after the first few completed books. If you haven’t yet exactly figured out how to plot your story, or you’re like me and just collect different methods to try, or perhaps you’re not even sure what exactly this amorphous thing called plot actually is, this post is for you!
What is plot?
Strictly defined, the plot is the sequence of events that happen in your story. The events themselves are the story, but the order they happen in is the plot. Though that sequence can also easily be confused with structure, which is how those events are presented (POV, style, etc.). Clear as mud? I thought so. That’s why I love this quote from E. M. Forster:
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.
This perfectly sums up what I think the strict definition of plot misses–plot is about causality. Simply put, the plot is the WHY. A happens, and then B happens because PLOT.
- When the plot thickens, it is because another layer of previously unseen causality has been revealed.
- When the plot twists, it is because the story goes in a direction that was not expected based on our understanding of the causality at the time.
A plot is always necessary if you want to hold a reader’s interest–there must be a why–but there are two main types of plots to choose from.
A character-driven plot means that the main why moving events forward is coming from inside the character. Something inside of them needs to change or grow or is searching for something (could be revenge, love, wealth & glory, adventure, etc.).
I know plot-driven plot sounds weird, so for clarity let’s call this event-driven even though that is what most people mean when they say plot-driven. This is a plot where outside forces are pushing the sequence of events and characters. Those forces could be the antagonist, a shift in circumstances, or disasters that the characters must tackle.
Most literary fiction, historical fiction, and romance falls into the character-driven category; most genre fiction besides romance falls into the event-driven category, but it’s a spectrum. Science fiction, thrillers, and mysteries tend to be heavily event-driven, whereas fantasy (imho) hits a nice sweet spot in the middle.
It’s important to put some consideration into where your plot falls on this spectrum, but the most important takeaway is that regardless, there must be a plot. If there isn’t, you’ll end up with “talking heads” where the story is all exposition and conversation and nothing actually happens. Or else you’ll end up with a story that is full of interesting action and events but no one cares because there is no apparent reason for any of it.
[Sidenote on backstory: the only backstory that is necessary is that which fills in the WHY. When debating whether to include an element of backstory, ask yourself if there is anything happening in the present story because of the backstory. If the answer is no, leave/cut it out.]
Do I have to have a plot before I start?
Though I would argue the answer is yes, you don’t necessarily have to have it all planned out. Whether you write 10,000 word outlines (plotter) or completely fly by the seat of your pants (pantster), the plot must come through on the page or your story will quickly stall. Even if you haven’t outlined it or thought about it, you almost certainly hold the answer to WHY? somewhere inside your head. That’s all you need.
This is where my very favorite writing/plotting tool comes in. There are many, many different ways to plot, and I’ll link a few of my favorites below for you to peruse at your leisure, but this one is the simplest, most universal, and, in my experience most effective tool at filling in plot holes.
It’s called G-M-C and stands for goal, motivation, conflict. I first learned about it from this marvelous book by Debra Dixon, which I highly recommend to ALL writers.
I won’t summarize it here, because I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, and you can also find a host of other explanations on the web. Instead I will tell you how I use this tool. At the outset of every project–great or small–I write something like this on a piece of paper:
I do one of these for every main character, including my antagonist. Even if I don’t use all the information, it helps to know it. The only kinds of plot holes you want are the ones that are intentional. If you normally feel constrained by detailed plotting methods, give this a try. I think it gets the creative juices flowing like nothing else!
So, why am I telling you this now, when you’re supposed to be writing, not plotting? Because this is also my go-to exercise whenever I’m lost in the weeds or get stuck in a story. Without fail, when I’m stuck, I discover it is because there is a piece of the GMC puzzle that is missing. I want you to have this in the weeks ahead to fall back on if you need it so that you can get quickly back into a writing groove. Of course, you can also use GMC retroactively during revisions with the same amount of impact.
You can do a GMC chart once, as an overall zoomed out summary of your plot, or–like me–you might find that it’s useful to do two or three per character per story. I follow a six stage story structure, where the midpoint represents a shift in the story. So, at a minimum I do a GMC chart for my protagonist and antagonist for each half, as the goal often changes (e.g. in the first half of the story the goal might be “discover the source of woe”, while in the second half the goal is “defeat the source of woe”). Sometimes I take it even one step further and do one for the very end of the story too so that I can have a complete view of how things have progressed.
To drill down even further, you can do a GMC for every scene! Yep, every scene should have these elements too. Say you’re stuck at one juncture in your story and you’re not sure what should happen next… do a GMC and focus on CONFLICT. Say something happens and you’re not sure how your character should react… do a GMC and focus on MOTIVATION. The causality is literally built-in to GMC, so you just need 1 of the 3 to figure the others out.
Why are there internal/external columns?
Again, this is optional. You needn’t fill out every box completely, and one side will be heavier depending on what sort of story you’re writing, but I find having both gives the most complete view. Character-driven plots will be heavy on internal conflict (character growth) and event-driven plots will be heavy on external conflict. But even if you’re writing a character-driven story, you must have external causalities too, and if you’re writing an event-driven story, your characters must still react/decide/act in response to external stimuli (and they MUST also change and grow); I argue both are always important.
I’m sure that your eyes are crossing at this point, so I’ll leave you with a few references for later:
Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure — Summary on Fiction University
I WISH YOU THE BEST OF LUCK THIS MONTH!!! REMEMBER, EVERY STORY HAS BEEN TOLD BEFORE, BUT NOT BY YOU.