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12 Rules of Plotting

rules of plotting

For the longest time, I resisted all advice on plotting because I strongly felt that a plot developed within itself and within the writer without any rules or obligations. It seemed to me that following advice or tips would extract the creative element from plotting and result in formulaic stories without an ounce of ingenuity.

I was wrong.

There is a wealth of information we can glean from the masters of plotting, and if you don’t pay attention to how others conquer this aspect of writing, you probably won’t get very far. To write a great story, you must first develop a fantastic plot.

And if you read this article with “The 12 Days of Christmas” running through your head, I won’t hold it against you.

Plotting Rule 1: Every Event is Purposeful

The first rule of plotting is that every event in your story must further the plot in a specific direction. Don’t write a sex scene or action scene just for the sake of excitement; if your characters engage in activity, that event should be central to the overall story.

Play the what-if game to make sure you’ve covered this rule of plotting. What if your characters didn’t go to the movies on Tuesday night? What if your main character didn’t have sex with his professor? What if the aliens didn’t send a spaceship to California?

In many cases, the what-if game will result in attractive alternatives. You might come up with another plot device that works better, or you might decide to scrap it altogether. Whatever the case, every scene in your story should have direction.

Plotting Rule 2: Characters Must React

Many times, writers focus entirely on the direct actions of characters: how they solve problems, reach goals, make plans, whatever. Plotting isn’t just about action, however, because in real life as well as in fiction, people react far more often. Faced with specific circumstances, human beings are forced to play the hands they are dealt.

Don’t give your characters too much control over the situational aspects of their lives. Place them in situations where they are forced to react, to make decisions that might not at first seem attractive regardless of what they choose.

The best suspense is often found in the weighing of options. Where will the main character go? How will he respond to attack? What is most important to him, and will he make the moralistic choice?

In other words, give your readers a reason to wonder how the plot will unfold.

Plotting Rule 3: Characters Must React Plausibly

Your story leading up to a character’s decision prepares not only your character, but also you reader, to the final choice. Whether it’s a minor decision or a major one, the choice your character eventually makes must jibe with his personality, strengths, weaknesses and prior decisions. Otherwise, your plotting efforts are implausible.

For example, a previously violent character with an attitude problem and a penchant for drama should not suddenly make a mild, considerate decision unless there is good reason. You can prepare the reader for such a change with a string of events that transforms the character, but such a radical turn of events should not come unannounced.

Characters do evolve during the course of a story, but plotting experts will ensure that those evolutions make sense within the context of the story. If a character makes a radical change, the events preceding that change should warrant it.

Plotting Rule 4: Character Motivations Must Be Clear

A particular character’s personal agenda will dramatically affect the direction of your story. When plotting, consider how each character is motivated and how their motivations conflict with the agendas of others.

For example, let’s say that two characters are searching for a mystical object. One wants to rule the world while the other wants to heal his wife. These two characters might team up in their quest for this mystical object, but their motivations are quite different. One is pure; the other is not.

So even if your plot includes several characters with the same goal, their motivations can easily generate conflict between them. Indeed, your hero and your villain might want the same thing, but their agendas create discord. This is the essence of plotting.

Plotting Rule 5: The Protagonist Must Lose

Not necessarily at the end, but at some point, the hero of your story should experience some cosmic or situational setback that fills your reader with doubt. Facing your main character with insurmountable odds is the best way to approach plotting, but it is then your job to decide how he will eventually conquer such obstacles.

Don’t cheat your readers out of an exciting ending. Give your characters sufficient heartache and failure to make their eventual success a surprise. This might be more difficult now than ever before, since many plot devices are overused, but the masters do it time and time again.

Plotting Rule 6: The Story Doesn’t Start Where You Think It Does

A writing professor once told me to complete a story, then cut the first fifty pages. This is sound advice, particularly since many writers have the tendency to “set up” their stories rather than diving right in.

In all likelihood, your story starts well after the initial events put the plot in motion. Begin in the middle, and you’ve already created an exciting situation where the reader can feel some momentum. Later on, you can allude to preceding events or even describe them in flashbacks, but wait until the action has begun.

Many writers try to circumvent this rule by writing a “prologue” that takes the reader directly to the climax, then follows with a boring and expository Chapter One that slows the momentum and explains to the reader what is going on.

This is a cop-out because you should be able to create suspense and excitement without resorting to underhanded plotting tactics. Don’t give away the bulk of the climax just because you can’t find an interesting place to start your story.

Plotting Rule 7: Use Coincidence with Care

Foreshadowing is a popular plot device used to create mystery and expectation, but when overused or implemented in a less-than-masterful way, it can really kill a great story.

One of the easiest ways to add foreshadowing to a story is by coincidence. Characters stumble across a clue or encounter a situation where a later event is prophesized, whether or not the reader realizes it at first. While this can be used quite eloquently, it is also dangerous.

Before using this plot device in your story, consider other options. Will the element of foreshadowing add to your story or take away? Will the reader see it for what it is or gloss over it until the very end? These questions need to be answered before you proceed.

Similarly, readers will be disappointed in coincidence when it is obvious. The point of a fiction story is to create mystery, suspense and excitement, and a goal too easily reached lets the reader down.

Plotting Rule 8: Every Story Needs a Villain

This might seem simplistic, but you’d be amazed by how many writers try to sell stories with no clearly-defined villain. This doesn’t mean that every story needs a masked, knife-wielding maniac; it does, however, mean that conflict is generated through villainy.

There are four basic types of conflict: man vs. man (knife-wielding maniac); man vs. nature (flesh-eating bacteria); man vs. society (unfair prosecution); and man vs. himself (moral or ethical decision). The last on the list is most difficult to master, and I don’t recommend it to anyone hoping to break into commercial fiction.

Whatever type of conflict you choose, it must be obvious to the reader, and the villain must be given a fighting chance. If it is obvious from the beginning that the hero will win, nobody will want to read your story.

Plotting Rule 9: The Hero Must Decide

I mentioned earlier that character should react just as often as they act, responding to situations in the story. By the climax, however, your hero is finished reacting. He’s had enough of his passive approach to problems and decides to take an active role in his own success or demise.

Even if you’re working on a tragedy and the hero eventually dies, his death must be the result of his own actions. Otherwise, the story will feel hollow.

Don’t give your hero a sequence of coincidental or magical advantages that lead him to conquer the hero. Instead, make him work for his success.

Plotting Rule 10: Make Environment an Advantage

The sequence of events in a story that takes place in the desert will vary significantly from a story that takes place in the rain forest. Similarly, the obstacles in a large city must be different from those in a small town.

Although the environment (or setting) should not influence the climax of a story, it should impact the events that lead to it. How do characters stay in contact? How do they travel?

The same goes for period pieces. If you are writing about another place and time (past or present), the particulars of that age will have an enormous impact on the sequence of your story.

Plotting Rule 11: Twists Can Tank a Plot

Plot twists are largely misunderstood, particularly as they pertain to written entertainment. In the movies, outlandish plot twists are far more acceptable than in fiction writing, and taking a plot twist too far will result in lost readership.

The tendency for young writers to twist their plots too far is unavoidable. You see an opportunity to really shock your readers, and the result is disastrous. It is best to avoid plot twists entirely than to butcher them in your work.

A better idea is to consider exciting new directions in which your plot can take readers. Don’t think of it as a “twist” if such designations send your imagination running wild.

Plotting Rule 12: Characters Are More Important

Too much emphasis is placed on plotting in fiction writing. The famous Flanner O’Connor said: “Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one?” In many cases, wonderful plots spawn from dynamic characters rather than the other way around.

For example, in the novel I am currently working on, the plot was secondary to the character. I wanted to write about a young woman who suffers from a specific phobia that defines every decision she makes. To further complicate her plight, I wanted her to have a young son who is totally dependent on her, with no father in the picture.

With that basic character sketch, my plot was off to a running start.

You’ll notice that many of the plotting tips in this article are based on characters rather than the actual plot. This is because characters create the plot, and if your readers aren’t rooting for your story people, they are going to put the book down, regardless of how exciting the plot.

Focus on your characters and the rest will inevitably fall into place.

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