Let’s do something scary and think of a plot as a math problem. Don’t run! I promise I’m just trying to make this easier to understand. Putting things into a different perspective, if you will. Because when you boil down a plot into its simplest components, it becomes almost like a simple one plus one equals two. There’s character and their conflicts, the settings around them, and more. They all work together to create a good story, and you need to learn and practice each component.
But how do you put them all together to make a strong, cohesive plot? How do you take each piece of the problem and get them to work together to get the answer you want?
Here’s what you need and how to get it.
Strong Emotion and Conflict
In a few months, I’ll be releasing a post on Freytag’s Pyramid, one of the classic models for plot structure. But here’s a little summary now: Freytag put a strong emphasis on how characters grow internally, whether negatively or positively. The climax was the turning point where the decisions the characters made either paid off or led to their downfall. If anything, this only shows just how the emotion and internal conflict of your characters enhances the plot.
But emotion and conflict go beyond the internal too. There’s conflict between characters (think between a protagonist and antagonist), the environment, society. Whatever the characters are fighting against and whatever the story’s main events are about. The emotion also comes from how you write, what emotions you convey with each scene. You want your readers to feel without being overwhelmed.
When you’re working on the main pieces to your plot, establish what the main conflict is. Then establish what conflict your characters are dealing with inside, what emotions you want to convey, and how you’ll convey them. How does the plot affect them? What should they be feeling in each scene? One story I’ll use as an example (that I also used for my Freytag post) is Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” A majority of the conflict centers on whether or not the family should have a garden party after hearing of the death of their neighbor. But it’s Laura’s conflict over the situation and her internal thoughts that drive the plot, and the emotions behind the writing that present the strong climax and thought-provoking ending. In a way, this carries the story, but it carries more than just plot. It carries the characters too.
Speaking of characters, a good plot is only as strong as the characters working through it. If you don’t have characters with real emotions and struggles, then the story itself weakens. Readers need to get into the characters’ minds, or headspace, to know their thoughts, and characters should have and do things worth knowing that makes them a good fit for the story and a good mold for you to develop as the plot goes on. What decisions are they going to make in the conflict and how are those decisions good or bad within the plot? What are the attributes they possess that makes them human but also drives them to make these decisions they make?
Think back to Freytag’s Pyramid again. Characters either succeed or fall based on their decisions. But they need to make choices that reflect their personality and their environment. What drives your characters? What are their motivations? Establish their personalities then develop their the other aspects of their lives. Make sure their problems and their motivations are believable. Then put them in a story that they can thrive in.
A good plot generally builds toward the climax before resolving all of its strings at the end. The journey you create and explore throughout is incredibly important, so if things move too fast or too slow, your readers will get lost on that journey, unsure if they want to continue. Plot moves too fast when readers feel that there is not enough information being conveyed, with lots of scenes and action glossing over the important info you should be “showing.” Instead, your story ends up leaping from one thing to another, and reader can’t keep up. Plot moves too slow when you dwell too much on scenes, putting in too much information that bogs everything down. Readers then feel that they aren’t getting anywhere and they’re not engaged with the story.
For a good pace in your plot, find a balance between action and information. Major events don’t need to come one after an another. Utilize the “little moments” that grow your characters and let your readers delve more into their internal conflicts and their emotions between major moments of action. Every scene you include, however, should move the plot forward, even if it’s a short episode or respite. Because as your building to the climax, your characters should be growing, learning more. If the pacing isn’t steady, their development won’t seem natural and the plot becomes less engaging for the reader. Carefully outline your story and ask yourself where things move fast and where things slow down. Then find the balance between them.
Each of these components works to create a sturdy but simple plot structure that you can manipulate to create something unique. Take a look at your favorite book and see if you can pinpoint the different aspects I talked about and how they work together. And if you feel that certain parts are lacking in your own story, start working on that specifically. Just think of each piece as part of a big picture, pieces that you have to add up to get the right answer.
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I am also a writer for Coffee House Writers! You can find my work under “Emma Foster” on their website.