Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Basics of Plot for Writers

by Cindy K. Sproles @CindyDevoted

Some say I’m a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants and never knowing where the next turn in the story will be. I’ve never liked that title. None of us are truly pantsers. Few, if any, just sit down at the computer and begin to write without any thought of direction. I don’t outline every plot point but I do have a clear idea of where I want my story to go and how I want it to end. We all have to know where we want to go and what road to follow, otherwise, the possibility of becoming lost is great.

The basics of plotting don’t change and though the methods for arriving at each point may be different, the rules never change. 

There must be an inciting incident that kicks the protagonist into movement. That one event that forces him/her to set out on a mission or adventure. When you think about it, this is how our lives are daily. For our adventure to begin, or for us to find a solution to a problem, something happens that forces us to draw a line in the sand and say, “I’ve had enough.” This is how we begin life and this is how we begin our novel. 

Our plotting requires exposition—the introduction of our main character, the time and place where our story begins. Exposition helps us to show the ultimate conflict and theme of our story. Our story cannot move without this. 

The action comes next. It starts with the inciting incident and continues to build throughout the story. It’s important to remember, action is not always a battle with guns or swords. Action is difficult situations, the angst, that our characters walk through and it’s this action and angst that drives our story forward. It’s what keeps the readers asking, “What on earth is going on?” 

The more action and angst a writer can pour on their protagonist, the deeper the plot, the more the protagonist has to work to escape the hardship, and the more the reader becomes involved with your characters. Good action has the reader standing on the sideline cheering for the protagonist. They are plotting resolution in their minds and when a writer makes a 180ﹾ turn in the plot, readers love it. We all love the unexpected.

Story climax. This happens when tensions are so high the only thing left to do is break. Our protagonist is forced to come face to face with the antagonist and nothing can move until the resolution to their conflict is found. It has to end.

Our story now moves into the spot where the action eases and our characters have time to recover from an emotional scene. It’s important to remember that though angst makes a great story, our readers need to take a breath from time to time otherwise, the story becomes too intense and they lay the book down saying they just couldn’t take any more hardship. For every one or two hardships you dump on a character, allow them a minute to recover…both the character and the reader. Again, this is true in life. For every hardship we endure, there are moments when things smooth out. Our situation may not have ended but we’ve hit a place where we can take a breath – even if only for a moment. 

Finally, every story has to have a resolution. I despised many of the movies in the late 70s and early 80s. Writers went through a time where they wrote amazing stories and just as we reach the end, there was never a resolution. The viewer was simply left hanging. I thought those movies had passed by until 2014 when the movie Lucy was released. This mind-bending science fiction story led us down a path to discover the purpose of life. According to the story, life’s purpose was to pass our knowledge and in this case, the actress called Lucy transforms into a supercomputer. 

I’m sorry if I blew the ending for you but my point is, when the movie was over, the audience was left sitting there saying, “That’s it?” There was no resolution other than a girl becomes a computer. Grant you, it was a science fiction movie, but the fact remains readers, or in this case, the viewers, needed to feel satisfied. A resolution needs to be clear and effective. This is not to say you cannot lead them into an opening for a second story, but the story at hand, must have a resolution otherwise, your readers walk away disappointed and frustrated. It’s fine to show the reader the life of your character has not ended, there is more to see, but this particular incident—this time in their life, is complete. Without a resolution, the result can cause readers not to pick up a second book you write. It bends toward that “it only takes once putting your hand on a hot stove to figure out it burns,” and readers won’t allow you a second chance, no matter how great book two is.

Even as a pantser, I have preconceived plot points of where my story needs to go and how it needs to end. I am geared to write character-driven stories, so as I write, I allow my characters to make the natural turns in the plot that makes excellent subplots. I may not write out every plot point, (which by the way, makes writing a synopsis difficult), but I do know how I want my characters to get from point A, to point B, to point C. Without plot structure we have no story. James Scott Bell talks about the three scenes of a story – the beginning, the middle, and the end. Though we all chuckled in his class at this divine insight, his point was clear. We have to have a plot of some sort or there is no story.

Look through your work in progress and ask yourself if you have all the elements in your story. Add them if necessary. Write a well-rounded story that leaves your reader satisfied at the end.


Cindy K. Sproles is an author, speaker, and conference teacher. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries and the executive editor for christiandevotions.us and inspireafire.com. Cindy is the lead managing editor for SonRise Devotionals and also Straight Street Books, both imprints of LPC/Iron Stream Media Publications. She is a mentor with Write Right and the director of the Asheville Christian Writers Conference held each February at the Billy Graham Training Center, the Cove, Asheville, NC. Cindy is a best selling, award winning novelist. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this helpful and directional post. I have been motivated and encouraged since the first words. Thank you