Writing Advice: Plotting

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Do you struggle with plot? I know that I do. The past four times that I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, I have failed miserably in making my characters go anywhere or do anything. Part of that was, of course, due to my preoccupation with reaching 50,000 words (the goal of NaNoWriMo) and losing sight of crafting an actual story. But another part of that was due to my failure to take time to actually plot out my story. Plotting helps you find out where your story begins, see where you’re headed, and pace your story as you begin to write. This year, I’ve made a decidedly more concerted effort to work on plotting and framing my story in an outline.

Your plot is the core of your story. Everything else that you throw into your piece of writing — characters, setting, style, and conflict — will come into contact with your plot. So, as you plan out what will compose that core of your story, begin building outward and creating those other elements to coincide and harmonize with your plot. Though plot is just one aspect of a story, it comes into contact with all other aspects to create the web of your story. That said, don’t focus only on your plot. Yes, the plot is important, but to make a complex and well-written story you will need many elements to come together.

When crafting your plot, you may find it helpful to have some tips and hints to help you out. Recently, the Making Light blog posted an entry that presented four simple tips to “turn story into fiction.” Here are the tips, but check out the full post as well.

1. Move and keep moving. Tell the story you want to tell without shilly-shallying around. Move your characters out onto the board, get them into interesting situations, and have them do big, consequential things as early as you can. Then, continue making situations interesting, and keep the big, consequential actions coming.

Note: Strong characters who assess, decide, and react quickly are especially good for holding the reader’s attention. Our eyes are naturally drawn to objects in motion.

2. Make it consequential. To the greatest extent possible, have later events be caused or motivated or shaped by earlier ones. Every causal or consequential link you can build into the story is a steel cable holding your narrative together. When you can’t find any way to link an event via consequence, see whether you can link it thematically to what has gone before.

3. Recycle your characters. Give preference to characters already used in earlier episodes, or to characters connected with them, when you’re peopling later events. Characters are made more interesting by being reused, and it increases the overall consequentiality of the story. One-time single-purpose characters are occasionally necessary, but they don’t support as much weight.

Cherish your good secondary characters. They’re infinitely useful.

4. See if you already have one. Whenever you need something new — prop, plot thread, setting, minor character — go back through the parts of the story you’ve already written and see whether you can find it there. It’s surprising how often the exact thing you need is already sitting there in plain sight.

— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan

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