The most common issue I see with budding writers, especially in the genre of Fantasy and speculative fiction, is that they struggle to find a plot. If I had a penny for every time I've read or heard,
"I've got so many great ideas, but I don't know how to turn them into a story."
"I've got a wonderful character/world/magic system/insert other story trope, but I can't think how it should start or end."
Well, I'd have a few pennies. At least. Tying your wild and fantastical imagination down to a clear story arc that excites, surprises and resolves itself in somewhere between 80k and 150k words (if you are aiming for a traditional novel) can be a daunting task.
Throughout this post, I will mainly use examples from a Fantasy classic: JRR Tolkien and a modern Fantasy bestselling author: Brandon Sanderson. They are both famous and great authors who understand plot very well and hopefully by doing this I can demonstrate how the basics of plot mechanics have remained the same throughout the years.
Planners and Pantsers
Individuals often fall into two camps: the planners and the pantsers. Or if you want to be more technical about it: the outliners and the discovery writers. The outliners (or planners) know how their story is going to start, grow and finally end before they start writing Page 1. The discovery writers (read: pantsers) just start writing and see where the characters take them. There is value in both, and you need to find out what works best for you, but this advice is definitively for those of you who wish to plan.
I am a planner. For me, knowing where the story is going to end is paramount to getting the beginning right. Good writing should be circular, after all, but I'll get to that in a later blog post. But all too often the outlining is difficult because it feels like you are forcing a plot into a place where it does not belong. You might have a beginning and an end, but linking the two can feel very fake if you don't do it right and your story will suffer from a very soggy middle - this is a big issue in many first novels.
That's the beauty of pantsing it - the writing is more natural because it follows on from what the characters are doing and leads nice and naturally into what the character would do next. You aren't trying to get them anywhere, so they go where fits them best. The only issue is that your story then has a tendency to drag, to have loose ends and to get a bit lost in the woods.
What you really want is an outline for your story that shows that you are planner, but looks and feels like you are a pantser.
I know. I know. How on earth do you do that?
Plot is Character
Trap #1 that people fall into: they think that plot is a thing all by itself. It isn't and it never has been. Plot is character. The events that happen in your plot are the events necessary to develop your character in the direction you want to take them. If you have a plot point that is not developing one of your characters, it is not plot. It's a waste of time.
You may have images of cool scenes in your head: a duel between mages, a siege of a great castle by a thousand goblins, a dragon appearing and burning down a village. Great. Wonderful. But be very careful to make sure that these things exist for a reason.
Example 1: Papa Tolkien, great father of fantasy, and the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers.
A hugely memorable battle. A very important plot point. But what is it doing in the story? Is it there so that the orcs and the men can have a big showdown and be exciting to read about? No. Well, partly. But for the sake of argument, no.
It is foremost Aragorn's opportunity to stand up and fight alongside another King of Men - Theoden - and demonstrate that he is worthy of taking the throne of Gondor, both to others and to himself. It is a key character moment for one the main protagonists of the book. It is a *Point of No Return*™ (we'll talk about those in a bit.) It is not there to be a cool battle scene; that is just icing on the cake.
Example 2: Sanderson, The Way of Kings (spoilers below), that battle at the end (you know the one I'm talking about).
Is it absolutely mind-bogglingly cool? Yes. Isn't it just awesome the way Kaladin explodes with energy and wipes the floor with everyone? Yes. Is it there so we can have a big cool battle? No.
It is Kaladin's ultimate character moment in the book. His choice to turn against everything he stands for about light-eyes, saving Bridge Four, etc. for the greater good. It is all a setup for him to make that choice. Without it, the battle is pointless and means nothing.
So let's reiterate: Everything you do in your plot, no matter how cool, must serve character growth.
As such, you need a good protagonist to do this. Fear not: we will talk about what constitutes a good protagonist in a later blog post.
A Basic Plot
Take your character, take a pen and paper and sit down and draw a grid that is three by three. Nine squares total. (you may also do this on a computer, if you wish)
Seriously. Do it now. Get some paper and pen, or open a doc, then come back. Trust me.
At the top of the three columns, write "Act 1" "Act 2" "Act 3".
We’re going to go back to basics. I was taught this planning technique by a guy who writes TV shows for major US and UK networks. It’s a great starting point. I’m not saying all stories need to be three acts, but it’s a good way to start thinking about stories.
While I will be giving examples from Fantasy works, I’ll also give you a very basic example for a Romance novel, just to show you how transferable this plotting style is.
Top left column - write down what your character wants.
What is their goal? It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, they need to want something. There is nothing worse than a character without a goal. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character must want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
The best goals for protagonists are of course more metaphysical or emotional than they are physical. Sure, they might have physical manifestations, but they are deeper than just a glass of water.
The best example of clear character goals comes from one of the classic fantasy tales - The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. He sets it up so clearly: the lion wants courage, the tin man wants a heart. Dorothy wants to get home. It is clearly set out and lends itself to a solid plot. You should be doing the same thing. Have a clear goal or your character is nothing.
(NB: You do not need to state the goal to your readers as explicitly as The Wizard of Oz does, but you need to know what it is.)
For my example: I am going to pick one of the most common and relatable goals in history. My main character is a guy who wants love and doesn’t want to be lonely. Done. Simple, easy, straightforward.
Something needs to happen to set them off the path to achieving this goal. It is the physical manifestation of what they want, something to kick them into action.
My example: Joe Protagonist finds out that the woman he loves, but has never had the balls to admit it to her, is leaving the country to go live abroad.
This is called the inciting incident. (tautological, I know, but who ever accused writers of being linguists?) The incident pushes your character into action. Even better is if there is a time constraint on this.
My example (revised): Joe Protagonist finds out that the woman he loves, but has never had the balls to admit it to her, is leaving the country to go live abroad TONIGHT.
There - much more dramatic. Add this to the first box too.
3. Get in as late as possible
You should start your novel as late as you possibly can for the story to still make sense.
This means as close to the inciting incident as you can. Not a day before, not an hour before.
My example: Very first scene is Joe Protagonist finding out she’s getting on the plane in a few hours. He reads it on Facebook or Twitter or something.
Have a consequence if he fails. This is very important. The biggest thing a literary agent / publisher / beta reader will ask you when they hear about your story is: what happens if he fails?
If the answer is: 'things go back to normal', then you don’t have stakes.
My example: The woman is going to somewhere so remote, like working in the middle of the Amazon rainforest with a tribe unconnected to humanity. He’ll never be able to contact her or see her ever again. His soulmate is gone forever.
It’s not huge and world-ending, but it’s something permanently lost.
Put your stakes in the same box.
That’s your first box done, on the top left. In it, write your Goal + Inciting Incident + Stakes. Now your story is really moving.
What about the next box?
Well, now you have a goal, an incident and stakes, you have set your character on a path. They need to do something, this is very important. Nobody likes a passive protagonist. My character needs to get to the airport before the woman leaves.
Then you throw obstacles at them. That’s what makes the plot move - obstacles to stop the individual on their path.
My example: Boss tells him if he leaves work early he is fired. He needs to find a way to negotiate or pacify his boss so he can get away. Or maybe trick him. He doesn’t have much money and can’t afford to lose his job. His phone also isn’t working.
KEY POINT: This obstacle isn’t random. It forces my character to think about what is more important to him, the woman or his career / job / livelihood. It is a character moment, as all plot moments should be.
Let’s look at another example:
LOTR again, because it is done so well. Frodo fighting Shelob is a great and memorable scene. Big scary spider. Exciting and tense battle. Orcs, etc. It’s a great obstacle to stop him getting to Mt Doom.
However, it is mainly there to give Sam an opportunity to return to Frodo and save him despite being sent away. It is a huge character moment for Sam and without that, the scene would lack all tension, excitement and even purpose. Make sure your obstacle leads to character development.
Put an obstacle or two in the second box for Act 1.
6. Point of No Return™
In the last box of Act 1, at the end of the Act, your character needs to face a ‘point of no return’. This means a decision that they make that impacts them so completely that there is no possible way they can return to the start of the story and everything return to normal.
Frodo choosing to take the ring to Mordor (Lord of the Rings)
Kaladin Stormblessed choosing to ‘save Bridge Four’ (The Way of Kings)
Vin choosing to join in the fight to overthrow the Lord Ruler (Mistborn)
After some attempts to pacify his boss, Joe Protagonist tells his boss to go screw himself and walks out, getting on a train to the airport to stop the woman of his love from getting away.
It doesn’t matter what it is, but it should be a choice. This is important. They need to choose to do this.
Put this in box 3.
7. Act II
Act II follows a similar trend to Act I. They have hopefully overcome their obstacles in Act 1 to some degree and, thanks to their choice at the end, they now have a more specific goal. They should face new obstacles to complete this goal, and then eventually they should be confronted with Point of No Return™ #2.
Note: This obstacles should take a different form. If they were personal, make them external factors. If they were physical, make them emotional.
My example: Joe Protagonist is on the train to the airport. It is delayed. He has to argue with the conductor. The train crashes and he has to find a new form of transport. He has to confront his usually passive and introverted nature in order to overcome these obstacles. He’s still a bit shaky from what he said to his boss. Once again, these are all here for character development.
Put these obstacles in boxes 1 and 2 of Act 2.
Then: Box 3 is Point of No Return™#2 - you need to offer the character a way out. This is key. He needs to be given a chance to give up on his goal. Offer them a different goal - something new. Something different.
My example: On the train (the second one after the first one crashes) he bumps into an ex-girlfriend. They talk for a long time on the journey and she hints that she is interested in getting back together. He starts to question whether the girl at the airport is really the love of his life.
Your character should, of course, turn down this offer of getting out. If he took it, the story would end. But he needs to, once again, make that choice.
Put this in the last box.
8. Act III - the ending and resolution
Okay, so now we're on Act 3. In the first box, put the consequences of the choice your character made. What do they have to do now to continue achieving their goal? What has changed for them?
In box 2, you put what I'm going to call your 'false ending'.
I will do another blog post, at another time, about endings. They are tricky things. Traditional narrative theory states that the story ends when the character gets to the end of their arc, they either achieve or forever fail at their goal. The question asked at the start of the story (will Joe Protagonist ever find love?) is answered.
So, Joe is on his way to the airport. He knows her flight leaves at 8:30 pm. What time should he get to the airport?
He should get to the airport at 9:30pm. The flight has left. He has failed. He will never see her again.
He needs to fail and the reader needs to know, for a fact, that he has failed. There can be no doubt. Only then can you pull your magical rug up from over their eyes and reveal the real ending:
She never got on the plane. She has been thinking about him the whole journey and couldn’t do it. She appears from the coffee shop in the departure area and says that she couldn’t leave him behind and live without him. Story resolved.
Think about how this happens in Fantasy novels:
Lord of the Rings: Frodo gets to Mt. Doom and puts the ring on. He chooses to turn back, just like Isildur all those centuries ago. He fails and we know he has failed.
Harry Potter: Harry literally dies. Voldemort kills him. He is dead. He can’t really have failed more completely than that, can he?
The Way of Kings: Dalinar Kholin is stuck in the middle of the chasm, surrounded, and going to die. His attempts to work with Sadeas have failed utterly. He is going to die. He has failed.
The failure needs to happen to make the eventual achievement seem real and not contrived. It is an important factor in ending novels.
This goes in the second to last box in Act III. The last box is whatever you do to turn it around.
So there’s your basic plot. It is by no means the be all and end all of plots and there are many great books that deviate heavily from this. It is a sketch to get you thinking. Do this, then add more. Then change things. But start with the basics.
Remember that the plot doesn’t need to be revolutionary. The best plots have all been told centuries ago. It is your writing of the plot and your character that elevates it to something special.
Include all the wonderful world-building and magic and dragons you want to, but always remember: plot is character.
Next Blog Post: What Makes a Great Protagonist
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.