Building Plot in Your Story by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Building Plot in Your Story.” Enjoy!
When they start a story, many writers know what happens at the beginning and the end—the triggering event and the dénouement—but they have no idea what happens in the middle. They understand the character and know where that person ends up. But how the character gets there—that is the question.
If this is you, what you need is plot.
If plot stymies you, as it does many people, you might be able to stimulate some ideas by thinking about your characters and what is likely to happen to a person like that. Ask yourself:
Building Plot: What if…
- What if…
You’ve got your characters, and you know at least something about what motivates them or what their goals are.
- What if you introduce a complication or obstacle that your protagonist will have trouble overcoming?
- Or what if you bring in a secondary character who gets in your protagonist’s way?
- What if you give your protagonist what they think they want—but then it turns out to be a burden?
Ask yourself what will make life hard for your characters. Seeing how they respond to challenges creates empathy with your readers and pushes your characters to grow.
Building Plot: Best-Case Scenarios
- What are the best-case scenarios…
What’s the best thing that could happen to your character right now, in this first scene? Because you want the stakes to escalate in your story, the best scenario will become bigger as you go along.
For example, consider the story of Cinderella. She’s stuck with a cruel stepmother and stepsisters, who treat her like a servant. As the story opens, she’s sweeping the hearth; the best scenario she can hope for is that she finishes early and gets a good night’s sleep.
But at the end of the story, after the ball, where she dances with the prince and then loses her glass slipper, the best scenario she can hope for is that he finds her and marries her.
Your story will be longer and more complex than Cinderella. But let’s say that in the first scene, Cinderella works hard, finishes early, and does get a good night’s sleep, awaking refreshed, full of energy and hope. She achieved her best-case scenario. Then what happens? How does that good night’s sleep affect what happens to her next?
Nobody wants to read a book where the protagonist always fails or is always in danger.
You want to show that your character is resourceful and succeeds—and then faces a bigger challenge as a consequence. (Maybe the wicked stepmother sees that she has more energy than usual, so she sends her on an errand to the next town to buy honey, where she …)
Building Plot: The Worst-Case Scenarios
- … or the worst-case scenarios
Let’s say that Cinderella gets to the next town in good time and finds the local beekeeper. But wait!
The hives have been destroyed by a swarm of murder hornets, who now go after Cinderella. She is stung multiple times, causing her great pain. She can’t walk back home! Her stepmother will kill her!
When your protagonist succeeds at something, the next thing is to figure out how that success sets her up for the next challenge.
Worst-case scenarios can help you imagine what’s at stake, and what your character, based on what you know about her, will do next. Your characters are what they do, so keep them challenged.
Building Plot: What Do The Characters Want
- What do the characters want
Dig deeper into your character’s psyche.
- What does s/he want?
- What does s/he fear?
Then make the best- and worst-case scenarios revolve around those things, people, or events. People’s wants and fears help to explain why and how they make decisions.
What does Cinderella really, really want? Or fear? She wants to be loved, and she fears not getting it.
But the story of Cinderella (and yours, too) has other characters. What do they want? What do they fear? Their desires and fears will conflict with Cinderella’s, and these conflicts will spur her story, and yours.
The evil stepmother, for example, wants to live in comfort, and she fears that she’ll have to scrub her own hearth when she gets old.
Building Plot: What Motivates Your Characters
- What motivates them
Asking yourself “What if” helps you develop plot points around possible developments, but understanding your characters’ motivations helps you develop plot points around likely developments.
For example, Cinderella’s desire is to be loved, and she fears not getting it. Her motivation is that her father loved her before he died, and she wants to be loved like that—unconditionally—again.
The evil stepmother wants to live in comfort, and she fears having to do her own housework when she’s old. Her motivation is that when she was a child, she was forced to scrub the hearth, thus ruining her back, and she vows she’ll never do it again.
Your character’s motivations add depth and clarity to their desires and fears, which enriches your story.
Developing Your Plot
They don’t call it “the sagging middle” for nothing! Developing an interesting, grounded, realistic, and gripping plot is difficult.
Find your characters’ motivations, desires, and best- and worst-case scenarios, and ask yourself what could happen next. You might be pleasantly surprised.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at [email protected] to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.
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