I feel that the plot is different from the outline. Every story has a plot. Even you, my dear pantsers (people that don’t outline their stories, they prefer to keep going until they get to the end), have a plot. A plot is what happens in the story. It can be full of arcs, which is a series of scenes with one conflict that has started, the middle and the end, or it can go around one problem only. When you’re writing a short story, your plot will be around one problem. When you solve it, the story is over.
So, how to plot a story?
I rely on Neil Gaiman’s help to solve this.
He begins his class by telling us that, when you start a story, a lot of things could happen.
“When you begin any story, you
have an infinite number of forking
paths. Every decision, every word,
every paragraph is a fork.” Neil Gaiman Masterclass
The character could have an infinite amount of choices.
For example, your first scene is in a school. The little boy, let’s call him Jake, is being bullied.
What will Jake do next?
There are millions of possibilities now. The story has just started.
He could try to face the bullies and get even more beaten up.
He can run away for a teacher and tell them what is happening. The bullies could get kicked out. Or they couldn’t.
Anything can happen. That’s the magic of a story.
It’s YOUR DECISION.
When you advance the story, the options start to get more limited because you made promises to your readers. You promised to solve the conflict. Jake is being bullied. What next? You promised that something would happen. This conflict would end.
How to Plot a Story: How to decide what will happen in the story?
I believe that there are two ways:
1. You want to write to market. This means that you know what your readers are expecting and you want to give it to them.
For example, in fantasy with the Hero’s Journey, readers are expecting to have a normal character living a normal life, the character gets a calling and they go to live in this amazing new life. However, they understand that they are special and this world presents a lot of danger. They have to help save the world from this danger. They usually have the help of a friend and a mentor and go through a training process until they go on their journey.
If you want to write romance: there are a boy and a girl, living separate lives. They eventually meet. Something makes them keep meeting (for example, they work or study together). Something is setting them apart, but they start to grow feelings for each other. They get together. The conflict that separates them get in the way, but they get over it and live happily ever after.
- Every genre has its expectations.
Meeting it is very important because you’re giving the readers what they bought you book for. If they go to the movies to watch a musical, they want songs! Imagine if you go there and not one song. Not even one.
Meeting your reader expectations is not “selling out”, it’s giving people what they want so you will become their favorite author.
If they bought an erotica book, they want sex.
If they bought an action thriller, they want action! They want guns, explosions. If you give them two little girls in a playground singing, they will hate you and your book. It’s not fair to your reader.
You can bend it. Nobody was expecting all the deaths when Game of Thrones first came out. But THEY WERE expecting a lot of fantasy and adventure. Imagine if they got the GoT book and it was 500 pages of Jon Snow’s existential crisis in his bed. People would probably HATE it because they wanted a fantasy story.
- You know some arc building techniques that you want to try
You read a book that taught you to start your story in the climax and build up from there. You really want to try a specific technique. Then, do it in your plot. You already know what you are going to write.
2. You have a lot of ideas for cool scenes, write what you want
The second way of deciding what is going to happen is that you have a lot of scenes you want to put in your book. You had ideas and inspiration. You saw a circus and you thought it was very cool, so you want to have a flying circus somewhere in the book, but you also want a pirate ship.
Now, all you have to do is try to organize these things.
Your character will get from point A to point Z through conflict. That what moves the story and connects the scene.
For example, Jake after running away from home found a very strange ship but he had nothing to lose, so he got in the crew. He found out it was a pirate ship. The struggle is to fit in. Then, the pirates want to go and rob a city. The circus will be there. The conflict now is that Jake wants to leave the crew and go to the circus.
This is your story moving forward.
Check these articles to understand better how to do it:
As we saw, conflict is what makes your story moves forward and get connected from the beginning to the end.
And now you decided what will happen in your story. All the decisions that your characters make are from the pressure you put on them, the conflict.
The conflict will be better when it hurts the character’s main motivation and goals.
Jake wants to run away. But he is also very torn of leaving his family behind even though they were mean to him. He would never see his toys in his room again. Will he do it?
The conflict makes the story interesting and shows the character’s true personality.
Conflict doesn’t need to be a dragon destroying the city. It can be as small as lending a toy to a friend.
Let’s go back to Jake. You decided that Jake would run away. He didn’t like his school nor his parents and he wanted to pursue a different life. And then he did, he got his things, he got out of his path to school, and he got into a bus to Alabama.
You now spent a lot of pages going in a certain direction.
You made a promise to your readers.
When you get to the climax of the story, you’ve been creating this entire story to get to this point. The readers are waiting to see all the points that you created solved. You must solve it now or write a sequence in another book but, the thing is, the conflicts must be solved after the climax.
The climax is the make it or break it of the character.
Everything that happens in a story must have a reason. Otherwise, your story is simply poorly developed.
“What if Frodo
had decided not to bring the ring to Mordor? Tolkien
spends a great deal of time showing that Frodo is the
only one who can carry the ring, and suggesting what
might happen if he fails. All of this work creates the
crucible effect for Frodo, making him (and the reader)
feel that he has no choice but to reach Mordor, no
matter what it might cost him.” Neil Gaiman Masterclass, Class Material
Readers are expecting that the ring is destroyed, otherwise, the story won’t get to an end. Or the ring is destroyed and the world is saved or Frodo dies and Mordor prevails. But it has to have an answer.