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Developing Plots in Fiction

Some novels are character-driven: the author develops a protagonist and other secondary and tertiary characters, and allows them to guide the storyline. These authors never know in advance how their novel will end, which can be rather... exciting, to say the least.

What's in a plot?

Other novels are plot-driven, and while there are obviously variations on a theme, there are certain elements that enable a plot to move forward. Here's one possible progression through a plot-driven novel:

state an obvious problem
discover a hidden need for the protagonist
create an inciting situation
introduce complications
cause characters to lose hope
enable protagonist to reach a decision
bring situation to a resolution

That's all very stark, of course, and writing is not usually that tidy. But essentially your protagonist needs to want something ("solving a problem" is another way of saying that) and the reader needs to have a sense of why the character wants it. For example, in a typical mystery novel, the protagonist needs to solve the robbery, murder, abduction, etc.-the initial problem is clear. But there needs to be something beyond that problem to truly engage readers. Why does this crime resonate so much with this detective? Is something from their past resurfacing? Is solving it in some way a favor to a friend or loved one? Providing that secondary, hidden motivation is where your novel becomes both more complex and more appealing.

The story arc

Plots traditionally--and for good reason--follow what's known as a "story arc." There's a reason it's called an arc: the plot begins at point A, moves more and more quickly to the top of the arc at Point B, and then a dénouement moves it into some sort of resolution back down at Point C. The building up of tension, suspense, and conflict, which occurs between A and B, is really the main focus of the arc; once resolution comes, the story should end. No one really wants to know what happens after the protagonists ride off together into the sunset: happy characters and situations make for dull reading.

The story arc doesn't just fall down into your lap from the heavens: it's built, one step at a time, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Even if you're more focused on the characters and less on the plot, you still need to have a sense of what Point C will look like. That can change, and often does; but you need to at least have something at which to aim.

Merging plot development with character development

Just as you create a story arc, you must also create character arcs. If your protagonist is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning, then they've failed to be interesting, evolving... human. You're not the same person at the end of the book that you were when you started writing it, and neither is your character. Allow them to grow, to change, to make mistakes, to experience joy... all the things that make them into a real person who can then participate fully in the story arc.

Keep it moving

Whatever your plot, it needs to catch and hold the reader's interest, which won't happen unless what is happening now is more interesting than what happened a few pages back. This is known in fiction as forward movement, and it's your first, middle, and last responsibility. No plot will work if it isn't compelling; no character will work unless the reader can't wait to see what happens to them next. Make sure that your plots and your characters work together to keep the reader turning pages, and one day you'll receive the best accolade of all: "I couldn't put it down!"


Want help developing your plots? Jeannette de Beauvoir works with writers from conception to publication as an editor, writing coach, book shepherd and publishing consultant. Contact her at jeannettedebeauvoir@gmail.com.

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