Sometimes, when I finish the right book, I’ll have this moment where I close my eyes and the entire plot coalesces in that darkness—like watching a cluster of stars slowly emerge until, finally, a constellation reveals itself. I’m continually in awe of authors who move me like this, who can guide me so expertly through their story. And while an original voice, intriguing prose, and poignant characters are essentials—to make it all matter, to make me really invest in the story—I need a good, solid plot upon which it’s all built.
Otherwise, it collapses. Things just don’t make sense. Characters appear conveniently, exactly where they need to be and exactly at the right time. People fall in love with one another for seemingly no reason. Settings become lost or unimportant. The momentum feels wrong, we’re either bored as the protagonist essentially does nothing for 50 pages or we’re overwhelmed when he/she saves the world in two! This is not to say the improbable makes for bad story telling; some of my favorite stories are actually built on impossible premises. Only that a plot is a delicate thing—and a little bit of structure or consistent logic never hurt anyone.
If you’re the writer who sits at his/her computer and bangs out a Homeric epic from start to finish without any pre-plotting, I love and envy you with equal measure. But I know there are writers out there—very talented, brilliant, published and non-published writers—who feel there’s something incomplete about their work. And I think the thing to start with is plot. Figure it out beforehand. Follow a model. Use structure, and let your creative impulse unravel within it.
The Basic 3 Act Structure: a beginning, middle, and end
You already know this, but it’s worth repeating because it’s old and it works. The beginning introduces the characters, establishes the stakes and kicks off the action/event that “gets the ball rolling.” The end gives us that final twist, and allows the tension to build towards the ultimate resolution.
The middle is just that—it’s everything in between—but it’s the longest, hardest part to plot. You want to springboard straight off an inciting event and ratchet up the tension until it explodes in either a cathartic moment or culminating event. Throw a whole bunch of hurdles in the protagonist’s way; make them higher and higher so each victory (or defeat) keeps the reader invested.
The more intense the stakes, the more the reader will care. Do you want to read a story about a guy who is hungry and wants a sandwich? Sure, maybe. What if it’s about a guy who fell from a plane, hiked his way through the arctic, taught himself how to fish, fought off a polar bear, had a spiritual epiphany, then made it back to civilization (upon which he asked for a tuna melt)? The point is this: ask yourself what’s really at stake. Even if the book is not a life or death tale of survival, you want urgency. It’s what makes you read a book until 4am and it is a very beautiful thing.
Wants vs Needs
Ideally what a character wants will be at odds with what he/she needs. This is the basic premise of human nature; if we knew what we needed we’d go and get it and that would be that. But when we have difficulty pursuing what we want—because we’re not self-aware enough, because we have compulsions, because we’re flawed—that’s what makes for an interesting narrative. Ultimately, the reward comes in not getting what we want, but in discovering ourselves and figuring out what our deepest needs are. Some examples:
- Cameron travels to an impossibly dangerous place to retrieve his sister’s ashes (WANT), only to realize her legacy truly lives on in the people and places she touched.
- Jena seeks to win a high profile boating race (WANT), but her NEED is to make peace with her estranged father whom she’s unconsciously trying to impress.
- Sandy desperately vies for the love and attention of James (WANT), though her NEED is to accept that she is worthy and beautiful without his validation.
All of these would require digging into the character’s back-story so we could understand where that need comes from. What this means is that essentially, most characters should be inherently wrong about something for most of the book—but in such a way that is relatable and psychologically convincing, and in such a way that we are all surprised and satisfied when she discovers the hidden answers.
Hurdles, or Obstacles
These are the challenges characters face as they pursue that goal (or WANT). Often times, a character can inadvertently create his/her own obstacles. For instance, Cameron obtains an illegal permit to fly to an impossibly dangerous place to retrieve his sister’s ashes—however he is caught with forged papers and thrown in the jail of the foreign country he’s in. Now he’s even further away from his goal; he has to figure out how to survive the jail gangs and how to get released before he even gets back to square one. If you’re especially good, you’ll have him learn something during the jail episode that helps him out later in the book.
In other words, things need to continually backfire for the character. Things should get continually worse, life more difficult. If things get better, then you’re slowly releasing tension from the story—and if you think of tension like energy, then you want more tension for more energetic movement. Or as we like to call it: narrative thrust.
It’s gratifying to read about a character who endures adversity, gains strength, proves him/herself over and over again. While the inciting incident, the one near the beginning of the book that launches the story, can be circumstantial (i.e. natural disaster, death, irreversible act)—the hurdles are more interesting if they are a chain reaction of events launched by the character. Reading about a hapless guy with bad luck and a sweet face might be a little boring; only so many random hurricanes and car accidents could happen before we’d check out. It’s just not as believable, or as interesting, as the challenges that arise due to something he did to cause them. Plot is a domino effect.
Take this example: Jeremy is further shocked when his comatose girlfriend’s mother, Gilda, hits on him at the grocery store. Confused, he backs away, but continues to visit his girlfriend in the hospital.
What, here, has changed about the story, due to Gilda throwing herself at Jeremy? Nothing really. Jeremy will probably keep visiting his girlfriend and feeling bummed, hoping she’ll wake up.
Now, take this revision: At the grocery story, Gilda throws herself at Jeremy. Confused but desperate for someone who understands him better, he pulls her outside and they make-out in the parking lot. He regrets it as soon as it’s over, but it’s too late. As he pulls away from her, confused, he sees someone else pulling into the parking lot. It’s Gilda’s husband. And he has a gun.
What, here, has changed? Likely, quite a lot. Our character has made a bad choice, and it has launched a story into motion. Perhaps the husband will forbid Jeremy from visiting his comatose girlfriend anymore. And perhaps this means Jeremy will now have to break-in to the hospital to “rescue” the girlfriend, and take her on some kind of strange and dangerous and wildly ill-advised road trip as he comes to terms with what their relationship really was, and the fact that she may be gone for good.
Having hurdles directly linked to the character’s actions help the reader feel as though the hero is the agent of the story—an actual hero, albeit flawed—rather than the author or god inserting events at random. It’s simple: A should lead to B, and B should lead to C. Action followed by reaction. If you get to G and cannot trace how or why the character got there—it “just happened”—then you are using action but you are not using plot. And action does not lead to narrative thrust. Plot does. You need interesting reactions, that lead to more shocking actions, and so on. That’s forward momentum!
Now ideally when you get the basics of a plot arc, the next step is weaving in subplots or secondary narratives that support or counter the primary story, interweaving with it. Maybe the choices the main character makes also cause ripples in the sub-plots, and vice versa. For instance, Jena hires her best friend Karen to captain the boat that they sail in the race. However Karen has a gambling problem, and in desperate need of money, sabotages the competition. This causes an accident in which someone dies, and now both characters must deal with the repercussions.
Remember that each subplot is really its own small part—you should still employ causality and consequence in order to create true advancement in the subplot, and you’ll be totally surprised by how each subplot ends up helping nudge your primary plot forward in unexpected ways. Just make sure your side-characters aren’t doing all the work. Your main character needs to be the one making the biggest mistakes and digging her way back out of them, over and over and over again, with increasing difficulty and stakes each time, until she is capable of true change, catharsis, growth, redemption. Voila, you’ve reached the end.
At Paper Lantern Lit, we build story from the ground up. Our unique literary incubator model allows us to mentor authors through the novel-writing process, teach narrative architecture, and foster unforgettable voices. For more info, or to submit samples, visit us at paperlanternlit.com.
Rhoda Belleza received her BA in English and Communications from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Post-graduation, she wandered up and down the West Coast, stopping in almost every city along the way. Fortunately, none of them fit quite right. She finally found a home in Brooklyn – where she lives, breathes, and eats fiction. She is the editor of Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance, published by Running Press.
Before becoming an assistant editor at Paper Lantern Lit, she was a copywriter, barista, shuttle driver, and writing instructor. She loves to feel the seasons change and is currently in a co-dependent relationship with her bicycle.
Lexa Hillyer received her BA in English from Vassar College in 2002 and began her editorial career at HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2003, working on books by New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot, Rachel Vail, Maureen Johnson, Hailey Abbott and others.
While at Harper, she was on the editorial panel for the inaugural HarperTeen fanlit contest, launched the First Kisses series and the Running Horse Ridge series, and was on the judging panel for the Ursula Nordstrom Prize for Fiction.
Lexa joined Penguin’s Razorbill imprint in 2007, where she acquired and edited approximately twenty teen novels including The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove by New York Times bestselling author Lauren Kate, the Possessions series by New York Times bestselling author Nancy Holder, The Extraordinary Secrets of April May,& June by Robin Benway and New York Times bestselling author Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement. She left Razorbill in 2010 to launch Paper Lantern Lit, a boutique literary development company. She received her MFA in poetry from the Stonecoast Program for Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine in 2010, and was the recipient of Tusculum Review’s Inaugural Poetry Prize as well as the Brick & Mortar Review First Prize in Poetry.