A Half Dozen Hints for Creating a Satisfying Story Plot
Want to write a story readers can't put down? These plotting hints will help them enjoy a smooth ride from beginning to end.
You may know what kind of story to write. You may know how to begin and end. But getting from here to there is tricky.
Don’t leave home without a map:
1. Outline your plot first—in writing. Authors vary in outlining techniques. Some go into dozens of pages of detail; some stop at a single sentence. You’ll find your individual style eventually, but the following is a good starting point:
A. Introduce main character(s) and central problem
B. First solution attempt
C. First complication—intended solution either fails, or causes a new, worse problem
D. Second solution attempt
E. Second complication
F. Third solution attempt
G. Third complication—situation now seems impossible
H. Last solution attempt either succeeds, or brings story to alternate resolution
I. Brief wrap-up
2. Always have a problem—a real problem—in your story. Nothing bores readers more than seeing everything go smoothly. While the problem needn’t be a matter of life and death, it must be serious to the story’s main character: a teenager worries about being popular; a retiree worries about the neighborhood deteriorating. Whatever the problem, the character should be directly affected by it and in a position to do something about it. Praying for a son overseas at war counts as doing something; fretting about him does not.
3. Never make your problem easy to solve. Let things get worse, at least twice, before they get better. Readers feel cheated when problems are solved immediately, with no real struggle. Letting someone miss an obvious solution is not the answer; readers are too smart for that.
Nor should the problem be solved by a “god from a machine,” the sudden appearance of a brand-new character or gadget. Which leads to Hint Four:
4. Surprise your readers—but not too much. Readers shouldn’t think “I never saw that coming” without thinking “I should have seen it coming.” They love it when someone escapes in a hidden car or when a bad guy turns out to be a good guy—if you dropped a few hints to the existence of the car or the character’s true nature. Painting a character as an obnoxious bigot won't necessarily make it believable if he suddenly murders his closest confidant for profit. There are arrogant characters and truly evil characters, and few readers automatically equate the two.
5. Tie up all loose ends. Don’t leave readers wondering what happened to Hannah, or if Steve passed his exam. As playwright Anton Chekhov is credited with saying, don’t bring a gun on stage and leave it unfired.
You can, of course, use a list of red-herring details to distract from one that will be significant five chapters later. But no character or question, onstage long enough to catch reader interest, should walk offstage without readers seeing the final departure.
Keeping track of loose ends isn’t easy; hence:
6. Keep a written master record of details—eye colors, time frames, building layouts. If you rely on memory, your central-block location may suddenly move to the corner. It happens to the best of us; Jerry B. Jenkins of Left Behind fame had to rewrite several chapters of one book after realizing his setting fit a situation that had already changed.
The idea of redoing three hundred pages is enough to make a person consider giving up writing, so here's a bonus hint: practice on short stories before attempting a novel. It lowers the stakes—and chances—of a major plot goof.