In this last post in the Story Architecture series, we’re going to talk about how to plot stories.
Idea and Theme
Plot starts with an idea. First, what’s your nonfiction concept? This is the operating theme and it defines the work, it’s how people will describe it, it will be how you sell it.
In my horror novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN, the operating theme is: How far would you go for your child? Many parents would put their arm in a shredder for their kids. But would you put somebody else’s arm in a shredder? That’s where love and sacrifice become horror. That’s the book.
It can help to write a 25-word synopsis of your book from the get-go instead of after the work is completed (as many writers do). That synopsis will form a work-in-progress blueprint of what you’re trying to accomplish.
Can the story be expressed as a “what if” question? Can you answer that question? Do the answers create additional “what if” questions that can become separate plotlines?
Examples: Who killed Joe? Can Lisa save the world during an alien invasion whose vanguard lands in her backyard? Which woman will Archie marry? That question becomes the story’s engine driving the plot from start to finish.
Pantsing Versus Plotting
Some people are pantsers and some are plotters. How are you going to write your novel?
Dash it off and done? Dash it off and completely revise? Write and revise as you go?
At a minimum, when starting your novel, I advise you to have at least two elements mapped out, a beginning and an end. Opener and closer. If you have these two elements mapped out, you’ll be able to do what you should be doing during your writing, which is writing toward the end. Always be writing toward the end.
Looking at the plot in more detail gives us a traditional three act structure. The normal, a central conflict is introduced, then it’s resolved.
Most writers get bogged down in Act II and resort to filler or succumb to writer’s block.
Having so many details makes outlining start to look more and more appealing.
As I become more of a plotter, I’ve really come to appreciate Larry Brooks’s advice in STORY ENGINEERING. He advises looking at the plot as four acts. The first act is the normal, possibly with an inciting incident that foreshadows the central conflict. The first plot point then occurs, which introduces the central conflict and changes everything. The next 25% of the book is the protagonist reacting–retreating, responding, running, failing to fight back. The mid plot point then comes, an event or information that again changes everything. The next 25% is the hero attacking, likely leading to failure and an “all is lost” lull. The second plot point arrives, igniting the last 25% of the book, which is the hero going all in to win or die. The book concludes with the final resolution/denouement sequence. At the 33% and 66% marks are pinch points, which the reader feels the pain of the characters in some visceral way.
Here’s an example of Brooks’s four-act structure applied to my submarine adventure novel CRASH DIVE:
Setup: Charlie has joined the submarines and is going to war during WWII. He learns the crew and boat.
Inciting incident: The S-55 takes to sea and goes to war, heading for the Solomon Islands, where the Battle of Guadalcanal hangs in the balance.
First pinch point: Charlie is left on the bridge during a dive.
First plot point: The S-55 attacks a Japanese battle group.
Part two, hero reacts: The S-55 is repulsed, makes repairs, moves into a high-traffic area but can’t sink a ship.
Alternate first pinch point: The S-55 takes a beating during the depth charging.
Midpoint: The captain decides to go to Rabaul, the center of Japanese naval power in the Solomon Islands.
Part three, hero attacks: The S-55 goes to Rabaul and sinks several ships, achieving victory, and escapes.
Second plot point: A Japanese destroyer has pursued the S-55 and starts hammering the boat.
Part four, final resolution: The S-55 is kept under and must surface to fight it out with the destroyer, they have an epic fight.
Second pinch point: Before they surface to fight, they’re under so long they run out of battery power and air, they’re suffering and facing almost certain death when they do surface
Climax: They sink the destroyer in which each officer, particularly Charlie, shows his heroism.
Denouement: The boat is so damaged it can’t dive, most of the crew is evacuated, a skeleton crew headed by Rusty and Charlie take the boat back to Australia, using deception to avoid an air attack, and the boat poignantly sinks just before it reaches port, buried in the deep, its fight done. Charlie and Rusty appear before Admiral Lockwood, who promotes them.
Writing from a blank slate is extremely liberating, but it also presents a much greater risk of your story going all over the place, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid with commercial fiction. Having a point B is a good start. Writing that way, but then completely revising to adapt it to a four-act structure is a great approach. Me, I prefer to outline at least 10 key scenes. By knowing my plot points, pinch points, opener and closer, pinch points and major obstacles, I feel like I can write more effectively because I know where I’m going, and I’ve got all the freedom in the world in getting there.
If you like the 10-scene approach, here’s a nifty outlining tool from James Smith (WRITER’S LITTLE HELPER):
Ending the Story
How you end the book is as important as how you start it.
How you start the book hooks the reader–even more important in the Kindle age, where readers download samples before buying.
How you end the book depends on whether it will stay with them, they’ll talk about it–that’s how books get sold more than anything else, word of mouth.
Resolve the conflict and clean up the mess. But leave an open question, something for them to imagine or puzzle over.
Wrapping It Up
So let’s sum up this series of posts on story architecture:
- Write short sentences.
- Use active voice.
- Variety keeps readers stimulated.
- Use concrete nouns and verbs where possible.
- Follow the principle of singularity—single idea to a sentence, single topic to a paragraph, single purpose to a scene, single dominant storyline.
- A faster pace keeps the reader turning pages.
- Plan your novel’s operating theme and storyline.
Do this, and you’ll have the tools that will optimize your chances of becoming a more successful fiction writer. Then you can be this guy:
Thanks for reading, and good luck writing.