I’ve been asked many, many times how I create my plots.
Truth is, when I started out, it wasn’t conscious.
And that’s how I got myself into a hole writing my first book and needed to retrospectively write everything down because I didn’t know WTF I was doing. I had 14 books planned in the universe; I needed to track everything so that I didn’t dig myself into a hole.
So I started writing it down.
Then, I started studying plot.
It took reading and writing several books, but I found a system that works for me.
Even now, sometimes my system changes because of the genre I’m writing, the book itself, or what’s going on in my life.
Also, a caveat: what works for me may not work for you.
But we’re not here to talk about planning systems.
Today, we’re here to talk about what makes a good plot.
There are three elements to a great plot. These elements never, ever change.
You can break them down smaller if you want to, but, without these three things, your story will always fall flat.
What are they? Challenge, conflict, and characters.
It’s that simple.
Let’s take a look:
Imagine your favourite film. Chances are, the opening scene is either someone at work doing something menial, or another reflection of their everyday boring life.
This is to establish the status quo. To give the audience a feeling of what the character’s life is like right now. Before it gets turned on its head.
Then, once you’ve established that status quo (quickly, in less than a chapter or scene, ideally), you need to challenge it.
This is your inciting incident, if you’re using the hero’s journey format.
What can you put in front of your character that completely challenges and upends their current life, ensuring it will never be the same again?
The more dramatic, the better.
In a romance, it’s probably meeting their love interest. In an epic fantasy, it’s likely to be the call to adventure, when they get invited on their quest. In a sci-fi, it could be when they board the ship, or when something goes wrong on the ship. (Star Trek: Discovery‘s first episode is one big example of this. I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers, but it’s worth watching/analysing.)
All stories must have conflict.
I was so bad for not including enough conflict in my stories when I was younger. As I was writing for comfort, I was super nice to my characters. I wanted good things to happen to them!
Then, someone gave me some writing advice that I may have taken a little too seriously: I needed to be meaner to my characters.
Since that fateful day in Costa seven years ago, I’ve hospitalised multiple characters, killed characters off, cursed them, given them stalkers, broken up relationships…and enjoyed every minute of it 😈
Some of my readers think I’m evil. But they also keep buying my books.
Readers care more about your characters when you put them through hell (literally or figuratively).
The meaner you are—and the more you explore the emotional implications of that meanness on your characters—the more depth your characters will have, the more plot you’ll have, and the easier your book will be to write.
The final component. Or, if you’re like me, this comes first. It doesn’t really matter which order you create these things in. I kept characters until last since this blog post is about plot, and challenge is the first part of your plot.
But don’t underestimate the impact of your characters. Ever.
For all three components to work, you need characters people give a shit about it.
If they don’t care, it doesn’t matter what you do to your characters. They’ll yawn and fall asleep, or give up on your book completely.
If they do care, that’s when they leave 5* reviews and tell all their friends about your amazing book. And that, my friend, is the foundation of any book’s success.
One of the key elements of this is the relatability of your main character, or point of view character, if they’re not the same person.
You can create this with the situations they’re in (or what their status quo was), their position in life, the way they think and feel, or something else. It doesn’t really matter, so long as that common ground between your reader and your characters is there.
This foundation allows your reader to empathise with your main character from the get-go, and is particularly important in comfort genres like romance and chick lit. If you skip this step, you risk isolating your readers. (Trust me on this one: I’ve made this mistake myself.)
Some readers don’t mind if your character isn’t instantly likeable or relatable. But if you don’t do this, you have to know the rest of your genre conventions inside out and play them right so that you don’t deter your audience.
There are three elements to a good plot: challenge, conflict, and character.
You can create them in any order; it’s really up to you and how you work. What matters is that you have all three—and give all three of them equal attention when you’re writing.
If your character lacks depth, people won’t care what happens to them because they can’t connect with them. If your conflict isn’t great enough, your story will be boring. And if your challenge isn’t there, there’s nothing to kick the whole thing off, which means you don’t really have any conflict because the status quo hasn’t been challenged deeply enough.
Over to You
What are your tips for writing a great plot? I’d love to hear them in the comments 🙂