Hate plotting fiction? Many authors do. That’s completely fine. I hope that these tips will help you to LOVE plotting. It’s fun, once you get used to it.
Listen up. Fiction is NOT everyday life.
Not even close. Fiction is telling lies to entertain people.
So please DO NOT:
- Start your novel or short story with your character getting out of bed (unless there’s an earthquake, and that relates directly to the story question);
- Follow your main character through an average work day — unless he’s planning to embezzle from his employer (and even then — don’t show ordinary stuff. Who cares?) ACTION is everything;
- Create “problems” for your characters which can be solved with a phone call. Remember the story question, and narrative drive.
Plotting fiction made easy: start with a character with problems he must face
Your main character must have real problems. As we said in the article on narrative drive:
Something important MUST be at stake in your story. If not literal life or death, then metaphorical life or death. When there’s nothing at stake, readers don’t care, and they won’t read.
In a sense, when you plot fiction, you’re creating two plots. The internal plot: your character has a flaw; something he won’t face. The external plot, the events in your fiction, which force your character to face what he most fears, so that’s our first tip.
1. Your main characters: create internal, as well as external challenges
We’ll see how this works in practice. We talked about quirks and attributes in New Novelist: 3 Tips For Creating Great Fictional Characters:
What’s the difference between an attribute and a quirk? An attribute will affect the story question, and the plot.
For example, perhaps your main character is scared of heights (attribute.) It affects the plot, because at the novel’s climax, he has to rescue someone who’s climbed onto a bridge. The climber is ready to dive into eternity, unless your character saves him… But he’s scared of heights. Now what?
Your character’s fear affects the story; it doesn’t matter that he drinks three, and only three, cups of coffee a day (quirk.)
So, when you create a character, create an attribute (or trait) too. Let’s say a character springs to mind. A 23-year-old — Sally. Never mind about job, eye color, and other trivialities. What’s her primary attribute?
We’ll say that she’s careless. She forgets where she puts things — her house keys, passwords for her computer, her asthma medication… Not only that, she’s forgetful with people too. She forgets that she’s agreed to call someone, and has made a date with someone else. On the work front, she’s a realtor, and she forgets to show a house.
All this is charming for a while. Then suddenly, it’s not, because “forgetfulness” could be a quirk, but you want it to be attribute, which affects the story question — and the plot.
How could you turn “forgetfulness” into something which is life-changing, and perhaps life-threatening too?
Perhaps our realtor’s staging a house. She hears two people enter. One is the home owner. She witnesses a murder. The home owner’s shot someone, and he sees her… And so on.
You can brainstorm lots of challenges and obstacles for Sally.
2. Create strong characters who act (thinking isn’t acting)
We said that fiction is NOT real life.
In real life, we’ve always got a little voice yammering on in our head. We review what people said, how we want to act, how we’ll pay the mortgage, and much more. In meditation, this voice is called “monkey mind.”
Please avoid trying to make characters “real” by having them think, and think, and think. It’s boring. No one cares. Readers won’t read.
Your characters must ACT.
Getting back to Sally, above. She’s forgetful, so of course in her terror — the home owner is about to shoot her too — she forgets where she put her car keys and her phone. She climbs out of a window and runs.
No thinking. Just action.
3. Remember your genre, and its demands (choose a genre, it helps you to plot)
So far, we haven’t thought about a genre for our novel about forgetful Sally. Which genre (category) will we choose? Romance? Mystery? Thriller? Suspense? Fantasy?
You choose a genre because a genre helps you to plot your novel.
Let’s say that we decide that Sally’s story is a MYSTERY.
OK. It’s a mystery, so we need a who dunnit. Poor Sally’s seen the home owner shoot someone, so she knows quite well who did that murder. We need something else.
You decide that poor Sally has a fiancé, who’s involved in some very shady dealings. He’s hired the killer. You know this, but Sally won’t know — she has to solve the mystery, before she gets killed.
Plotting fiction: start with a character who gets into trouble
The easiest way to develop exciting novels which readers can’t put down is to start with a character who gets into trouble. The trouble is made worse by who she is — by your character’s primary attribute.
Whether you’ve started your novel, or are still planning it, or perhaps have finished it, and realize that it’s a tired mess — consider your character’s primary attribute. It’s vital, to create intriguing plots.
If your character doesn’t have an attribute yet, develop one. Plotting fiction must be exciting for you, because then your novel will be exciting for readers.
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