By Sandy Tritt
Before you can start writing, you must have at least a basic idea of the three major components of a story. Plot is what happens. Character is to whom it happens. And setting is where and when it happens. Most stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. A plot-driven novel is one in which what happens is more important than to whom it happens. An example of this is an action/adventure novel. A character-driven novel is one in which a character evolves during the story, and what happens isn’t as important as how the character reacts to what happens. An example of this is a romance novel. A successful plot must have a struggle of some sort—on one hand, something that a character (or characters) wants, and on the other hand, something that prevents the character from having it.
Plots are based upon three fundamental struggles:
• Man-against-man—this is when another character (the antagonist) is at odds with the protagonist (the main character) and tries to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing his goal. An example of this would be a cop chasing down a serial killer.
• Man-against-nature—this is when nature (or, possibly, machinery) causes problems for the protagonist. An example of this would be a man left behind in Antarctica, fighting for survival against the elements of nature.
• Man-against-himself—this is when some character flaw within the protagonist prevents him from achieving his greatest desire. An example of this would be a man who wants a happy home life, but who battles alcoholism.
Many novels have a main plot with several subplots spidering off of it. However, in order to keep a handle on things and to prevent random rambling, it is important to have a focus statement to give your story cohesiveness. A focus statement describes your story’s basic plot in one sentence. Yes. One sentence. Forcing this focus gives you a home base to return to and reflect from, and ensures that you don’t drift too much in other directions.
Examples of a focus statement::
• An uneducated man from the slums climbs through the political world in his quest to become President.
• A teenager hones his acting skills in hopes of making it big on the Silver Screen.
• An alcoholic mother struggles to raise her children.
A plot must also have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning, of course, is where the story starts. The setting must be firmly established (both place and time), the main character must be introduced, and the story question must be presented. The story question puts the focus statement into a “what if” format:
• Will the uneducated man from the slums be able to achieve his goal to become President?
• Can the teenager make it big on the Silver Screen?
• Will the alcoholic mother be able to successfully raise her children?
The middle of the story is where we build the action and further develop the characters. The middle of the story is the link between the beginning and the end, and that which makes the end possible. The end of the story consists of two parts, the climax and the resolution, also called the denouement. The climax is the turning point in the novel, where the tension is highest. The climax is where all seems lost, where decisions must be made, where life and death hang on the balance. The climax should lead directly into the resolution, which should answer the story question and resolve the character statement of the main character (usually, these will be linked).
In a character-driven novel, the main character should be changed in some way—wiser, more mature, kinder, perhaps even more cynical—but he/she must have undergone a change. If his character goal has not been achieved, then it must be resolved (perhaps the uneducated man from the slums decides that he can make a greater impact on society if he becomes a teacher than he could make as President or perhaps the teenager’s father is seriously injured in an accident and the youth realizes that nothing is more important than his family and he’d prefer to stay close to home).
Plot is accomplished through a series of scenes. A scene is the dramatization of one snapshot in time—what happens at one specific place at one specific time. Of course, the action may unwind over a period of several minutes or longer, but once the action is transferred to a different setting or to a different character, that scene ends and another scene begins. (However, the same scene continues if the viewpoint character himself is moving, say walking down the street from one house to another, or if the omniscient point of view is used).
Every scene in a novel must further the plot or develop a character (preferably both at the same time); otherwise, it is an extraneous scene and should be cut. Every scene should also have a feeling of completeness about it. This is accomplished by ending the scene with an action, thought or dialogue by the viewpoint character, hopefully resolving or reviewing whatever “mini-crisis” the scene presented.
Most writers divide their novel into chapters. Some give a title to each chapter; others just use numbers. There are no rules for assigning chapters, although I’ve read advice that suggests that each chapter should consist of three scenes or each chapter should consist of twenty pages. I think this is up to the individual writer.
Plot is certainly one of the most important components in your novel. There are several ways to go about developing plot. Some people outline, putting every scene on an index card. Some people know the entire plot before they even write one word; others discover the plot as they write. If you'd like your own copy of our reproducible Chapter Summary Worksheet, which can help you outline your chapters, or the Novel Summary Worksheet, which can help you identify each component of your novel so you can stay focused, please just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send one out to you.
Bottom line: plotting is as individual as personality. Find what works for you and use it.
(c) 2003 Sandy Tritt. All Rights Reserved.