Fiction Plot Development

Plot and character development are intimately connected. Both are dynamic entities that grow and change and intertwine as the story unfolds. However, each has unique properties that must be firmly in the writer’s mind before the writing begins.

The plot provides the story’s structure much as the skeleton determines the form of the human body. There is a beginning, a middle, and an ending, all of which are driven by a single engine: conflict.

Conflict happens when a character struggles with a force hostile to his or her well-being in a way that leaves him or her fundamentally changed. The central conflict of your story will have been established in your concept. If that concept does not contain a conflict, it has no story potential. For example, a concept such as a man learns the game of golf would attract very few readers, whereas a man overcomes a spinal injury to win the Masters would have great appeal. The conflict can be against another person, a societal ill, a force of nature — anything that threatens your character’s status quo.

Your book’s beginning introduces your main character or characters and reveals the force against which they will struggle. It also sets the physical stage for the story: the setting. That said, you must choose a point in the overarching story that will become your opening scene. This may or may not be the story’s chronological beginning. You want to begin where you will get the most bang for your buck. This is called the narrative hook. You want to engage the readers’ interest within the first page or two or you will lose them. Therefore, your first chapter — or prologue if you use one — must place the main character, called the protagonist, in the midst of the conflict almost immediately. This is not to say that you reveal all of your cards at once. You tell just enough to pique interest and keep the reader turning the pages.

The central portion of the book is where the details of the main and peripheral conflicts unfold. Your characters’ struggles play out in dribs and drabs, prolonging the tension and suspense as long as possible. Be tough on them. Throw up as many obstacles as you can think of to foil their progress toward whatever goal they seek. Once they have solved one problem, force them to deal with another. These hurdles must increase in intensity until it seems no solution is possible. When the action reaches this stage, you are ready to move on to the ending.

The climax of a story comes when the central conflict is finally and irrevocably resolved. The protagonist comes to terms with the forces against which he or she has been struggling and accepts the personal changes that have been wrought as a result. The more difficult it is to clear this final hurdle, the better. Once resolution has occurred, however, the story must wind down post haste. Loose ends will remain, and those must be tied up in a way that leaves no further questions in the reader’s mind. This process is called the denouement. When all has been explained, a final short scene should illustrate the protagonist’s peace of mind and leave the reader glowing with fulfillment.

How much of the above must you have in mind before you begin to write? Some writers prepare detailed outlines of their plot. From my perspective, this practice is confining and stultifying. When I am planning a book, I have a general idea of where the plot will lead and how it will end. I decide what the initial hook will be, and I lay out some possible points of action. Then I concentrate on developing my characters. Beyond that, I begin with only a general notion of the story’s arc. This leaves me free to contemplate the ramifications of each scene as it unfolds. I have found that when I immerse myself in the nitty gritty of the story, new avenues for plot development reveal themselves. I am continually surprised by where these tidbits lead me. It is a process of discovery that is ever new and reassures me that any plotting roadblock I encounter can be overcome if I dig deep enough.

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