Plot and Story Structure: The Art of Plot Arc
Welcome back and thanks for joining me for another exciting installment in my planning process series. We have already covered the core narrative components of character and setting a bit earlier on in this guide, so make sure to check them out if you haven’t already done so. By now, you should have your initial cast assembled and ready to set foot onto the stage and at least a few of your settings should be starting to feel more like places than simple backdrops.
Congratulations, let’s swim on over to the deep end of the pool, because you are finally ready to start hammering out the plotline of your novel.
As you have made the decision to write a book about something, you likely already have a few major events cooking away in the back corners of your mind. Perhaps you even know how your story will begin, culminate, or resolve. But don’t worry if one or even all of these pieces are still a bit inchoate at the moment, because by the time you arrive at end of this stage, you will have made considerable progress on your overall plot as well as begun to structure your individual chapters and subchapters.
For this discussion on planning your plot, I am placing the focus on plotting out the major events of your novel in broad strokes. We will save the minutia for my entry on scenecrafting 101 in the next chapter of this guide, “the Drafting Process”.
As this is a long, information-dense entry, I will refrain from adding additional pictures and diagrams to save space.
During the early stages of planning out your plot, you are going to be considering big questions like:
- Where does my story begin and end? (This is not necessarily the same as what takes place on the first and last pages of your novel).
- What are the major challenges, conflicts, or threats my protagonist(s) must overcome?
- Which of my characters’ goals are in opposition to one another?
- How will my central characters change over the course of my story?
- How will I divide my overall plot into digestible chapters and subchapters?
- In addition to the main story, which subplots will I include to add depth and breadth to my novel?
So what is the plot of a story anyway?
At its most basic level, plot can be defined as a series of interlinked events, woven together by a chain of cause and effect. Each of the significant events in your story, especially the ones you have put a few pages into, should have meaningful consequences at some point later on down the road.
Event 1 causes event 2. Event 2 triggers event 3. Event 3 appears trivial at first, but actually has initiated event 4 and also event 5 (the start of a separate subplot). On and on down the line until all of the plotlines are wrapped up and converge once more by the end of the novel.
In this example, each event impacts the course of later events. If any of these occurrences did not significantly change the outcome of the story, they would have no place in the overall plot (but might still appear briefly in scenes for atmospheric purposes).
Thinking about plot structurally, every story has:
- A beginning
- A central conflict
- At least one pivotal (climatic) event, and
- An ending
Depending on the length, style, and to a lesser extent, the genre, of a story, many novels also possess:
- Main events: key scenes that move the story forward towards the climax.
- Minor events: scenes included for characterization, change of pace, continuity, and breadth.
- Subplots: stories that are separate from the main plotline, each with their own pivotal events and those events leading up to them.
In addition to the above components, I am adding two final concepts to this taxonomy:
- Scenes of rising tension: high energy scenes that drive the plot forwards towards the next major event.
- Scenes of falling tension: low energy scenes that allow characters (and readers) to ponder, react to, deal with, and make plans regarding the major events the came before.
The number, nature, and arrangement of these core narrative components form what is generally referred to as a story structure or plot arc. Every story is unique, however many tend to follow one of several tried and true formulas to at least some extent, a number of which are covered later in this article in order to show you how they are built and function.
General rules of plot structure and plot development
Before we jump into a lengthy discussion on conflict and tension, I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you a few general rules of plot development that I have built for myself over the course of writing my novel. These are only intended to be useful guidelines as you begin plotting and are by no means set in stone (although I suspect that many of you will tend to follow them naturally).
Never make the resolution simple or easy for your characters (and readers)
A novel where everyone is happy, where the characters have no problems or worries and easily obtain their desires, is a boring novel. A novel that few people will enjoy and no one will buy. This is because overcoming a challenge or resolving a conflict lies at the heart of every good story.
Force your characters to strive and struggle. Not only during the climax of your tale, but at every stage along the way. Allow them to them come close to realizing their goals only to fail, setting them even further back… or allow them to achieve their desires only to realize this outcome wasn’t really what they wanted.
Maybe they misunderstood a critical detail. Perhaps they were unable to see the larger picture until that moment. Either way, they thought that attaining this thing would make them happy and now they are miserable and out of ideas on what to do next, a great place for your characters to be narratively speaking.
Introduce an engaging hook at the beginning of your story (and with every new subplot)
You only have a brief window to cement a reader’s interest once they pick up your novel and begin to peruse. Within short order (a few sentences or paragraphs tops) they should have a solid idea regarding who and what the novel is about, and more importantly, why they should care about what is going on. This is traditionally accomplished by incorporating an interesting event, designed to draw your reader into the narrative, right at the start of the story. These captivating bits of narrative, known as “hooks,” will help your reader to become emotionally and intellectually invested in your tale, keeping them turning those pages as they breathlessly wait to discover what happens next.
Hooks are vital, not only at the start of your novel, but at critical places throughout it as well. Smaller hooks should be used at the beginning of your chapters and subchapters, as well as when you introduce new main characters, major settings, and subplots for the first time.
The more significant that a major event is to the plot, the further ahead of time it should be set up
I am sure that many other authors have come to this conclusion as well. But this is a rule I built for myself after consuming hundreds of epic stories. The idea is that the culminating climax of your novel (or series) requires the most buildup to execute effectively, followed by major plot twists.
This can take the form of foreshadowing, of setting pivotal events into motion early on in seemingly innocuous scenes, etc. Laying such foundational groundwork and then carefully scaffolding over time enables your readers to become emotionally invested in the conflict. Put another way, if you want your resolution to feel significant (or even epic), you need to allow your reader to wrap their mind around its importance well before you actually resolve things.
Never allow the tension in your plot to go slack or lose focus
We will be discussing various ways to shape the structure of your plot and the tension thrumming throughout it a bit further below. But regardless of how you choose to organize your plot points, it is important that you introduce a least a bit of tension into your narrative early on and keep it there until the story is over. The ideal level of tension in your various scenes, as well as the pattern of its spikes and dips, will vary depending on your story structure.
Regardless of the shape of your story, if you let things go too limp (the archetypical example being the sagging middle), your reader will soon find themselves losing interest and wondering why. The same is true with losing focus. If your reader can’t understand why they are being shown something, why they should care, their attention will naturally drift away from your tale. They may even set down your novel, never to pick it up again.
Deciding on the central conflict of a story
Human beings are curious creatures, creatures who thrive on stories of two forces set in opposition. We possess an inherent need to know what is happening when we witness opposing human needs. To understand why these forces are in conflict and to discover how their struggle will resolve. We want to know who will triumph and who will falter. Who will obtain their desires and who will fall along the wayside. A well-chosen central conflict will naturally encourage your readers to imagine what is going on in the minds of your characters, as well as what they might do if placed in that same situation.
In order to engage this curiosity. In order to give your story staying power in the minds of your readers, it is going to need a powerful central conflict. So what is conflict in a story anyway? Now your story will likely feature many sources of conflict, as your characters attempt to achieve their goals while struggling against their environments, each other, and even themselves. But most stories also feature a central conflict, the one that eventually comes to a head in the climax and leads to the resolution after it is resolved. The nature of your central conflict will have a dramatic impact on the kind of story you are telling and it is vital that you wrap your head around yours before extensively plotting out your novel.
External conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force, which can take the form of another character as well as the natural world and human society. Conversely, sources of internal conflict stem from within a character’s own heart and mind and can take the form of a moral dilemma, past trauma, and the desire to change oneself.
In the greater scheme of things, character motivation is one of the most engaging components of storytelling. While you absolutely do require a character, a goal, and an opposing force to construct a plot, it is your characters’ motivations, the reasons why they feel compelled to chase after their goals, which will most powerfully connect to the hearts of your audience. Compelling motivation is always spawned from conflict, when a person is dissatisfied or unhappy and their wants and needs are not being fulfilled. When they are forced by events beyond their control to confront danger, or the darker alleyways of their own soul.
Powerful wants and needs are core components of being human. Something we have all experienced over the course of our lives. Such drives are relatable and are powerful hooks. A human connection that bridges the lives of your characters with the interest of your reader. Motivated goals set against a central conflict lead to action. And as your readers follow the journeys of your characters, witnessing them struggle and face the consequences of their decisions, your audience will quickly find themselves drawn into your narrative for the long haul.
Sources of external conflict
Person vs. person
This is a classic source of conflict in literature as well as everyday life. In a person vs. person source of external conflict, one character is pitted against another. The nature of their conflict can take a number of forms, including:
- One character wants to take what another character possesses. This can be material goods such as money, food, and shelter, social status, or even their spouse and family.
- One character wishes to humiliate, hurt, or kill another out of envy or spite.
- One character desires to destroy something that another wishes to protect.
- Both characters want the same thing, but only one can have it. This can be a position, a lover, to be the first person to accomplish something, etc.
- Both characters want different things, but still stand in the way of each other’s success (cops vs. criminals, etc.).
When choosing a person vs. person central conflict, the important thing to keep in mind is that both sides of the struggle need to be well-developed in order for your plot to achieve balance. Both forces (individuals) set in opposition should possess equally intense desires to achieve their goals, powerful motivations for why they want them, the ability to make their own decisions, and comprehensive personalities and backstories.
Person vs. society
Sometimes it isn’t another individual that is in conflict with a protagonist, rather their struggle is against a particular aspect of human society. This can take the form of a corrupt religion, an oppressive dictator or military, predatory commercialism, and more. Sometimes it is the perception of society as a whole that a character is trying to survive or change, and the opposing force takes the form of prejudice (racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc.), systemic injustice, or the oppression of vulnerable segments of the population. In other cases, society as a whole might be struggling with a major problem, such as recessions and depressions, the emergence of disruptive ideologies, or even revolution.
Common themes in person vs. society stories include: justice, freedom, equality, corruption, or the preservation of a way of life. Person vs. society stories also tend to possess significant internal conflicts as part of the plot, as the characters living in an imperfect society are forced to deal with their dissatisfaction, compliancy, powerlessness, or direct role in perpetuating the problem.
Person vs. nature (or technology)
Perhaps the most fundamental struggle is a conflict between an individual and the natural world. In tales that are centered on a person vs. nature conflict, the character is most often motivated by the primal need to survive, struggling in the face of dangerous creatures, terrain, weather, or other disasters (plagues, famine, panics, etc.). Some stories begin with the initial onset of these forces, while others focus on characters who are attempting to survive in the aftermath of a major (often planet-wide) disaster.
Another variation of person vs. nature conflict occurs when the sources of opposition arise from a technological phenomenon. Different from stories where the emergence of technology in society is the source of conflict (these follow the person vs. society format and tend to deal with themes of greed, corruption, and other forms of human imperfection), these stories involve a technological force gone awry, usually to the point where it now represents a natural disaster. Examples might include: extreme weather, nanomachine plagues, or the perennially popular zombie apocalypse.
Characters in person vs. nature stories are generally motivated by the simple need to survive or protect important others. However, such tales also tend to feature significant internal conflicts as well, as the characters come up against their own limitations regarding stress, stamina, loss, hunger, and pain.
Person vs. monster
I will be covering monsters and magic in detail in a later installment of this blog. But still I wanted to talk about a special kind of conflict here, which is unique to fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories: person vs. monster.
Monsters are always in essence either a person, an animal, or a force of nature, with additional horrific elements added to the mix. They are the personifications of our primal fears, the combination of something ordinary blended together with something extraordinary, unknown, and dangerous. Person vs. monster stories are fundamentally no different from person vs. person or person vs. nature stories, except that the rules of the conflict are determined and guided by the specific aspects of the supernatural force you have created. Sometimes these can lead to unique story situations, such as when a character is possessed by a supernatural being and must battle them for dominance within their own minds and bodies.
Sources of internal conflict
Person vs. themselves
In each of type of external conflict we just covered, the primary opposition comes from outside of the characters. To create internal conflict, your characters are going to become their own enemies, forced to contend with opposing aspects of their mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. In order for internal conflict (person vs. self) to work, a character must be driven in two opposing directions while attempting to make a major decision.
Sources of internal conflict frequently involve a character’s:
- Defects and weaknesses.
Whenever one or more of these forces pulls a character in different directions at the same time, the result is internal conflict. The character must eventually come to a decision or take action, or fail to do so, and the decision must be a difficult one. When a character is thrust into internal conflict, powerful emotions will arise naturally (for them as well as your reader). They might experience fear, anger, doubt, confusion, or regret.
To make this type of conflict work, the consequences of this decision must have significant outcomes. Where no matter which decision a character makes, something undesirable is guaranteed to occur. Putting your characters’ backs against the wall will dramatically raise the level of tension powering your story, keeping it at a boiling point until they are eventually forced to act and then deal with the ensuing consequences, the next major plot point in your storyline.
Ideal (new) self vs. old self
Another common human need is the desire is to change something about yourself, but doing so is rarely easy (or you would have already done it), and the struggle to change oneself can be a powerful source of internal conflict. A variation on this theme occurs when a character’s behavior is out of sync with how they perceive themselves (cognitive dissonance), and a conflict arises between the self they want to be and the self they witness taking action before their eyes.
Deciding on the shape (structure) of your plot and then allowing it to evolve: It’s all about rising tension
Before we dive into the weeds of plot development, I wanted to cover a few different ways to structure the overall shape of your plot. Each of these formulas has been used to write thousands of successful novels, meaning there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to story structure or fundamentally right or wrong strategy for plot construction (although certain structures generally do tend to be better suited to certain kinds of stories).
Bear in mind that these rules are not “the rules” or “your rules” and that you should always strive to create the best plot structure for the story you are trying to tell, not merely one that follows these models as closely as possible. You also don’t need to commit to making any hard, fast decisions about your ultimate story structure just yet, but as you read this section and then complete the culminating exercises at the end of this guide, you should begin to see a pattern emerge.
What each of these plot structures have in common:
- A starting point to begin the narrative.
- An inciting incident, where the main characters are thrust into the central conflict.
- Rising tension, interspersed with moments of relief (falling tension).
- A central conflict resulting in a climax.
- An ultimate resolution to the tale.
What makes each structure unique:
- The level of tension present in the opening scenes and the pace at which it grows.
- The chronology (where in the overall timeline of the story the opening act is placed).
- The presence (or lack) of major obstacles for characters to overcome prior to the main climax.
I want to add here that there are many good online resources that cover the details and history of these structures in greater depth. Rather than being comprehensive, my intention in introducing them to you now is to help grant you a framework when considering your plot as a whole, so that you can make an informed decision regarding the structure you prefer.
But before we get any further, I will explicitly state one final time that you should not be afraid to break these (or any) rules. Learning how to plan out the plot of a novel is similar to learning any other skill. First you learn the fundamentals and understand their logic, then defer to your own judgment and inspiration, adapting these ideas to fashion your own personal writing approach and style.
(Modified) Freytag’s pyramid
Let’s begin with one of the oldest known literary structures, Freytag’s pyramid. This model was developed by Gustav Freytag in 1863 in order to explain the five act structure of Greek (and later Shakespearean) works and has since made its way into modern novels and theater.
- The story begins with a lengthy exposition. This is where the writer introduces the characters and setting and provides background information explaining how things stand at the start of the tale.
- At the end of this exposition, an inciting incident (also called a complication) occurs, usually a single event signaling the beginning of the central conflict.
- From the inciting incident, the story continues with progressive scenes of rising tension, raising the stakes and level of energy present in the narrative as events begin to come to a head.
- Near the center of the tale comes the climax, a highpoint of tension in the story as well as a critical moment in the plot. In a Freytag’s pyramid, the climax is the event that all the scenes of rising action have been leading up to, which the scenes of falling tension will follow.
- After the climax come scenes of falling tension, lowering the level of energy in the story as things approach the resolution.
- In the resolution, the central characters’ conflicts are fully resolved and any lingering plot questions are explained to the audience.
Over time, the climatic scenes in such story structures have worked their way over from near the middle of the narrative to near the end (as it’s rather boring to have a resolution that takes place over half of a novel). However, a modified Freytag’s Pyramid is still a common choice for shorter stories as well as literature intended for younger audiences. The idea is that you begin the story with exposition to explain the situation (allowing younger minds to grasp the setup over time), then gradually ratchet up the tension until things reach a climax, after which events expediently resolve and the story concludes. Another weakness of this approach beyond its extreme predictability, is rather than a hook, the story begins with a hearty exposition, making it harder to engage and retain readers until the inciting incident occurs and the real action begins.
Pros: Easy to follow. Great for simple and short stories.
Cons: Challenges in immersion and engagement. Overly simplistic for modern stories. Plot is often highly predictable.
The Fichtean curve
Next on our tour of classic plot structures comes the tried and true Fichtean curve, which has probably been responsible for more bestsellers than any other plot structure in history. The strength of this approach is that it begins immediately with the inciting incident, launching the story into its conflict and rising action right from the first sentence. This exciting opening serves as a powerful hook, drawing the reader into the thick of the action from page one.
From there, the plot continues to raise the stakes as it heads towards the climax. However, unlike Freytag’s pyramid, the Fichtean curve intersperses scenes of falling tension and exposition along the way to help vary the pace and contextualize the story. Additionally, this structure features several major events (sometimes referred to as crises) prior to the pivotal climax. After the climax, scenes of falling tension quickly pave the way for the resolution, where any last loose ends are bound together and the reader gets at least a glimpse of the new day to day reality of the characters before arriving at the ultimate end of the tale.
The power of this approach arises from its page-turning pairing of conflict and tension. Readers are thrust into the action right from the start and the major events prior to the climax prevent the narrative from losing focus and the audience from becoming bored. This roller coaster tension curve keeps the characters dancing from one crisis to the next, meaning that there is always something interesting for the readers to experience, their attention span fueled by the natural desire to discover how each new situation resolves.
Pros: Tension is present across the entirety of the story. Easy to hook readers from the opening scene. Multiple crises and resolutions create engaging pacing.
Cons: A bit harder to structure logistically, as there are more central events to prepare and balance.
In media res
Latin for “in the middle of things,” in media res stories begin the narrative in the center of the plot, at some point in between the inciting incident and the climax, usually at the start of the first or second major event. This is a bit different from simply starting the story with an action sequence, as several important events in the master plotline have already occurred. In essence, in medias res stories are simply modified Fichtean curves, with the opening chapter placed sometime after the inciting incident.
After the opening scene is resolved, the story continues with scenes of rising tension interspersed with expositional scenes of falling tension, in which more of the big picture is revealed to the reader, as well as the story of how events progressed to this point. Just like a Fichtean curve, the narrative then builds towards the climax, followed by scenes of falling tension and resolution in which any additional exposition occurs and loose ends are tied up.
Pros: Powerful hook included in the opening scene. Easy to insert foreshadowing and cliffhangers while the exposition contextualizes the story.
Cons: Requires more skill to map out the story’s chronology.
The hero’s journey
Although it is by far my least favorite modern story structure, as the hero’s journey (popularized by Joseph Campbell) has rather successfully elbowed its way into mainstream media, I feel I would be doing you a disservice not to discuss it here and let you decide for yourself what to make of it.
In essence, the hero’s journey is a circular plot structure, meaning that the protagonist’s voyage through space and time will end roughly where it began, although their adventures will have fundamentally changed them along the way. The hallmark of this story structure is that the characters begin their lives in the everyday world, before being thrust into an extraordinary reality they never before imagined. The combination of these two fundamental elements results in stories with themes heavily focused on personal transformation, with the protagonist experiencing significant character development (arc) over the course of the tale.
The gist of the hero’s journey goes something like this:
The story opens in the protagonist’s everyday world, which tends to be rather mundane, boring, and predictable. After a while, the hero receives some manner of call to adventure, which they usually ignore. At some point, an inciting incident forces them to accept the call, dislodging the unwilling hero from their everyday world and transporting them into an unknown realm (crossing the threshold). They then face significant challenges and setbacks as the action rises, eventually reaching a great ordeal, a low point where things seem hopeless or doomed.
Then, from somewhere deep within, the hero experiences some manner of fundamental epiphany, resulting in their psychological (and sometimes literal) death and rebirth. This rebirth grants the protagonist some sort of powerful reward, enhancing their powers and understanding to a previously unimagined level and allowing them to pass through the gauntlet of this trial unscathed. The hero then attempts to make atonement as they return to the ordinary world, righting any wrongs they committed along their earlier adventure. At last, having discovered their true self and attained inner peace, the protagonist returns to the place where they began, fundamentally transformed by the journey they undertook.
So, what’s not to like about this structure you ask? Well, from my perspective it has several problems. First and foremost, the hero’s journey requires a hero, someone who is special because of the circumstances of their birth and possesses some unique power or lineage. The hero is able to overcome their struggles not because of their willpower and sacrifice, but because they really were somehow special compared to everyone else. This in my mind is one of the least satisfying answers in literature, and has the side effect of transforming the protagonist into some sort of superhuman being, inherently separate from the rest of humanity.
My second beef with the hero’s journey is the “ends in the same place it starts” bit, where nothing meaningful has changed except for the hero’s inner world, further reinforcing the perception that the protagonist was the only truly important person in the story, because only they experienced meaningful change in response to the tale’s pivotal events. Much like the real world, to my mind, a good story is an ever-changing place that no one person is the center of. Additionally, no one winds up in the exact same situation after undergoing a life altering-ordeal, falling back into the same old role and routine. That kind of ending is just too neat and tidy, while I prefer a world that changes organically in response to major events.
Pros: Proven formula for hero stories (especially coming of age variants). Provides nice pacing for main themes involving personal transformation and person vs. self central conflicts.
Cons: Resolution often too neat and tidy. Hero must be someone inherently special. Rather predictable these days, as the story tends to read like fairy tale (or Disney movie).
The epic curve for multiple (serial) act stories
This last story structure is one of my own design (based on epic games, anime, and fantasy literature), although I’m sure that many other authors have worked out a similar structure on their own as well. It is intended for use in serial (multi-novel) stories as well as in individual books considerably longer than the average novel (several hundred thousand words+). The idea is that before reaching the ultimate climax of the novel or series, one or more lesser climaxes occur at key points along the way. This provides the reader with an experience similar to a Fichtean curve, but one that opens up the story after arriving at the first climax instead of heading immediately towards a resolution, transitioning the narrative to the next major story arc as the series slowly works its way towards its ultimate conflict and finale.
The plot of any given novel (or major story arc) in an epic series should be self-contained, but also transition into the plot of the next book as well as head towards the central climax of the entire series. In a sense, the central conflict of each successive novel serves as a subplot in the overall flow of the story, but is still be a meaningful and complete narrative experience in and of itself.
If the series conflict involves a war, the central conflict of an early novel would likely feature the initial invasion and first major battle. In a fighting story, the series conflict might include winning the world title, while an individual novel’s central conflict might detail the outcome of a smaller tournament. If the series conflict is about defeating a super villain, the first novel’s conflict might center on dealing with one of the boss’s powerful subordinates, or the hero’s first major skirmish with their nemesis in what will prove to be a lengthy struggle.
One of the main differences with this structure is that the novel includes a significant section of falling tension after each climax, allowing for a hearty block of resolution and character development before another inciting incident thrusts the characters back into the action, now focused on the next major event. I plan to write a complete installment on series writing a little later on, just as soon as I complete by second novel and have more direct experience with the process of planning out a multi-novel epic curve under my belt.
Pros: Allows for multiple pivotal events and climaxes prior to the end of the novel/series.
Cons: May not be suitable for shorter works.
A word on power creep
Many fantasy and science fiction stories feature characters who possess special powers. Characters who battle progressively stronger enemies and who are forced to train, research, and/or develop themselves to combat this rising threat. In such cases, matching the protagonist’s progression to the level of their opposition is a vital balancing act. After all, once your main characters obtain the power to demolish city blocks single-handed, more mundane threats like wild animals or rough terrain naturally lose their ability to provide tension going forwards. The reason for the characters’ abilities and their opposition’s being at their present stage, while clearly possessing the power to evolve well beyond them, needs to make sense and feel authentic to your audience or your story will lose much of its appeal.
Also, if your characters are growing stronger but the other people around them are not, it results in special challenges as your heroes have fundamentally become something greater than human, which can cause friction with the local populace, generate unique moral dilemmas, and more. When plotting these type of stories, it is vital to have a clear picture of where your characters will start and end regarding the power of their abilities, as well as the manner by and the degree to which they will improve.
Plotting a novel from front to back: Planning the opening, middle, and closing of your story arc
Before we move on, I want to take one final look at plot development with you, starting from a different angle. The idea here is simple. Every story, no matter is particulars, has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. As such, there are some important options to consider when planning out each of these parts, regardless of your chosen story structure. Once you have finished with this preliminary process, you will be ready to begin working on your story outline, which will eventually be consolidated into your master plotline. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to outline a novel just yet, as we will cover it in detail a bit later on in this guide.
Plotting the start: Hooking your audience
When thinking about how to begin your novel, remember that nothing is more critical early on than hooking your potential readers. A good rule of thumb is that if you haven’t grabbed their attention by the first sentence, piqued their curiosity by the first paragraph, and cemented their interest by the end of the first page, they are going to pass up your story in favor of something more engaging.
Some key questions to mull over as you consider potential opening scenes are: “Why should my reader (immediately) care about what is happening here?” and, “Is my hook as powerful/interesting/exciting as I can possibly make it?”
The beginning of a novel usually covers the first 20-25% of the word count and comes to a close when the inciting incident launches the story into the middle of the plot. If you wait much longer to place the inciting incident, your readers will become bored while waiting for the real action to start.
The opening scene
Start from the first sentence by introducing your protagonist, one of those compelling characters you have been crafting and refining since the start of this series. By now, this individual should be pretty interesting, and I have no doubts that you have chosen well and diligently fleshed them out over time. But relying on the sheer coolness and charisma of your main character isn’t going to cut it all by itself if you really want to hook your reader. A carefully-selected event that is vital to the main plot, the first consequential thing that your readers will experience after placing their imaginations inside of your story, is required to seal the deal.
The opening scene should be as easy to understand as possible, requiring little if any explanation in order to jump right into the thick of things. Let the action provide the initial context and save the start of any exposition until the first scene of falling tension (which should arrive in the next chapter or subchapter). Keep the opening action clean, direct, and moving along at a steady pace until after you reader has committed to the long haul and has had time to become interested in learning more about your world and its inhabitants. Nowhere is the writing maxim “boredom is death” (ok I may have just invented it) more true than in the opening scene of your novel.
Introducing the world
After deciding on an opening scene designed to hook your reader from the outset, there are a few additional considerations to keep in mind as you go about planning the early chapters of your novel.
Keep it clean, simple, and relevant
First and foremost, try to think about how things appear from the perspective of your audience, who are experiencing your cast, settings, and plot for the first time. By now, your story and its participants should be beginning to feel like old friends to you, their creator. A familiarity which will only continue to grow as you keep on turning out those pages. But all of this information is still brand new to your readers right now, so it is important not to overwhelm them with unnecessary names, characters, and details early on.
Ways to go about achieving a focused simplicity include:
- Don’t introduce more than one or two named characters in the opening chapter, or dive into their backgrounds and life history just yet. All of that can come after you have hooked your reader, allowing them to bond with your characters and story.
- Reveal the protagonist’s character goals (wants and needs), core values, and cornerstone experiences (cores and cornerstones) as early on as possible (without forcing it). This makes it clear to the reader who the major players are and what kind of story they are reading.
- Don’t use too many locations in the first chapter or two, limit yourself to one major setting and one or two minor settings.
The inciting incident
After taking a few chapters to introduce the world and your starting cast of main characters, it’s time to transition into the middle of your story. This is almost always accomplished by a type of scene known as an inciting incident, in which the characters are thrust into the midst of the story’s central conflict. Whether they choose to enter this next phase willingly, after much soul-searching, or are forced by circumstance with no choice whatsoever, after the inciting incident your characters will be facing the full fury of the novel’s oppositional force and the overall level of tension in your narrative will start to rise until the story reaches its exiting climax.
A few tips to really nail this stage:
- Make the inciting incident directly relevant to the central conflict.
- Have it raise compelling questions to be resolved later on.
- Let it set the tone for the rest of the story.
- Allow it forever change your characters.
What if the opening of the novel is the inciting incident?
So what happens if your opening scene is the novel’s inciting incident? Are you simply done with the beginning from the outset and ready to plunge into the middle of your novel from the second chapter? Not so fast. For even if the action of your opening scene precipitates or directly involves the inciting incident, the readers have yet not had the chance to understand the full implications of this event.
In this case, I advise that you plan out the start of the novel much same as you would for any other story structure, and consider the end of the beginning of your story to occur when the full, fell implications of the inciting come crashing down upon your characters, revealing the terrible extent of the novel’s central conflict.
Plotting the middle: Making stew
For our discussion on planning out the middle of your plot, I am going to craft a metaphor. Imagine if you will, that your story is a stew. A delicious, bubbling concoction formed of your characters, settings, and events, all simmering away over the tension of your plot. Using this framework, the start of the book provided your stew with its broth (an initial picture of the world) and its meat (your wonderful protagonist), but there is still a fair amount of cooking to do before your meal will be ready to serve to your hungry guests.
Plotting out the middle of your story is an exciting process, as the depth and complexity of your world and its inhabitants come fully into their own. In most stories, the middle is where the protagonist’s true journey begins. Where they set out into the unknown (literally or metaphorically) and leave behind the world of the familiar and mundane. The middle of a story generally runs until about the 80% mark, where you are ready to bring things to a head and then to a close.
Into the thick of things (tossing in all of your ingredients)
After the inciting incident usually comes a period of falling tension, in which more of the big picture is revealed to your characters and audience. Before you begin to think about the climax, it is time to toss in most of your remaining ingredients before turning the heat back up. In this stage, you are going to be broadening the scope of your narrative by choosing scenes that will demonstrate the full implications of your central conflict, introduce new main characters, and set various subplots into motion.
During this stage, characters don’t instantly begin to pursue their ultimate characters goals, as the central conflict is too large of a problem to have a tidy or obvious solution. Instead they struggle to wrap their minds around the present situation, taking the next perceivable step while battling to keep their heads above water. As events progress, the characters gain a deeper understanding of the state of the world, acquiring new insights about themselves and their conflict along the way. After a while, events will begin to turn towards the midpoint, where the tension and conflict escalate dramatically as the story heads towards its climax.
Aside from the hook at the start, this stage and the one proceeding it are where you are in most danger of losing your audience. A sagging middle, where too much focus is lost and tension is dropped, is a common place for an otherwise engaging story to lose steam. This is avoided by the inclusion of subplots, as well as by raising the overall stakes at a measured pace. If you have ever played the game as a child where you and another person take hold of a rope, lean back, and then spin around in circles, you already have a good model for how tension should operate across the middle of your story. Too little tension and you let go of the rope and lose engagement. Too much and the other person gets pulled off balance and can’t enjoy the ride’s natural pace. In either case, they will pick themselves off the ground, frown, and go home. This is why intermixing scenes of rising and falling tension is so important, as the fluctuation of action and relaxation retains the reader’s interest while the main plot continues to simmer.
Raising the stakes at the midpoint: Bringing your plot to boil
By now, most of your ingredients have been thrown into the pot and your stew is starting to gain its full texture and flavor. Now it’s time to put the lid on and turn up the heat to a roiling boil as you prepare to tighten the overall scope of the narrative and draw events towards their ultimate climax, in which the protagonist(s) faces off against the novel’s central oppositional force in a decisive showdown. However, if you want your climax to feel exciting as it draws near, riveting when it arrives, and satisfying afterwards, you are going to need to do two things well.
First you need to choose a climax that is right for the story you are trying to tell. But we will cover that in depth in the next stage. Beyond that, the most important element to get right is the groundwork that precedes that climatic moment, which is what this step is all about. Even the best climaxes in the history of literature and film would fall flat without the earlier scenes that gave them context and energy. Those invaluable moments that made the audience care about that world and its inhabitants. This process allows for the climax to feel surprising without blindsiding your audience, creating what is sometime called an “oh-of-course surprise.”
So then, how do you go about setting up a successful climax?
- Begin by raising the stakes near the novel’s midpoint, then dramatically escalate this process as you head towards the final quarter of your page count. This is also where you will begin to foreshadow and prime the climactic scene (see the section on plot twists below).
- Introduce any last new characters and subplots by this time, as it will be an unpleasant surprise to your audience if a major player comes out of nowhere during the final scenes.
- By the same token, it’s time to begin resolving most of your subplots, except for a few that can be wrapped up during the story’s resolution.
- As you begin to raise the stakes, have your protagonist(s) take an increasingly active role in facing down the novel’s central oppositional force (or antagonist), ramping up the level of tension in the narrative until things come to a head in the climax. This can be accomplished by giving your characters less and less time to deal with each new threat as well as by ratcheting up the danger of each, creating a rising tide of suspense.
- Several intense sub conflicts often proceed the final conflict in this phase. However, any seeming successes your characters have managed to achieve up to this point will fall away in the face of the true threat now looming before them.
- Finally, immediately before the climax, any last setup that needs to occur should be dealt with (characters changing locations, reminders the audience needs, the framework for any plot twists, etc.).
Plotting the ending
Well, we have finally done it. We have journeyed through the heart of your story and, at long last, are ready to tackle the conclusion of your tale. Take a moment to celebrate just how far you have already come since making that initial decision to write a book. There is still a lot of work left to do, but standing here at this point in the process is a major milestone and you deserve a pat on the back for the long hours and considerable effort you have put in thus far. Since we are nearing the end of planning out your plot, this seems like a good time to ask: “What constitutes a good ending for a novel anyway?”
Obviously there is more than one answer to this question, as there are many successful approaches to concluding a tale. However, in general a well-crafted ending needs to satisfy your readers, both in the manner by which the central conflict is resolved, as well as by giving them time to enjoy the satisfaction of a thrilling read. Of course, depending on nature of your story, its ending can be happy or sad. Triumphant, tragic, or anywhere in between. However, a satisfying ending is always one that makes sense in terms of the novel’s conflict and theme as well as one that rewards the audience for the time they spent getting to know your world and characters.
The end of a novel usually covers the final 20-25% of the page count and is comprised of the climax, the resolution, and a short section I call “the farewell.”
The climax: Dinner is served
The climax is the ultimate head-to-head showdown between a novel’s main characters and its central oppositional force and/or antagonist. After it concludes, the novel’s conflict should be definitively resolved (at least for now). As we discussed, the pacing and tension of the narrative should rocket intensely before the true climatic scene. One common technique is to have the characters face a gaping low point (also known as a dark night of the soul or black moment) right before the climax starts. Things might have been tough until now, but they were starting to look up, right before the situation was suddenly plunged back into chaos and potential disaster with the emergence of the story’s climax, raising the suspense through the roof as the reader waits on pins and needles to find out how the showdown resolves.
The climatic conflict itself should:
- Matter deeply to the characters.
- Contain both internal and external struggles.
- Remain uncertain and unpredictable (suspenseful) until the decisive moment.
- Be definitive in its resolution.
- Confront the characters with significant odds of disastrous failure.
- Be true to the novel’s theme.
- Be emotionally intense, more so than any other scene in the story.
- Represent a culmination of the core plotline.
- Be believable (Make sense in the context of the world and its events).
- Include a revelation that transforms the protagonist, completing their character arc.
When planning out your story’s climax, nothing is more important than the decisive moment, where the protagonist is forced to draw upon their true strength and the lessons they have learned throughout their journey. How satisfied your readers are with your conclusion hinges on this moment, in how skillfully it set up and then executed. Although it is not necessary, most stories climaxes involve the protagonist arriving at this final moment (walking into the belly of the beast) alone.
Other important questions to ponder when crafting your novel’s climax include:
- Is this the best/most meaningful place for your showdown to occur? Many climaxes occur on the antagonist’s home turf.
- Did the character(s) earn the resolution based on their own struggles and merits?
- Did the climax fulfill the promise of the novel? Did you deliver on what everything has been leading up to?
- Did you end on the right emotional tone for your story?
- Does the arrival of the climax feel organic in context with the rest of the tale?
The resolution: Taking time to bask in the satisfaction of a delicious meal
After the climax comes the last 5-10% of the page count, in which the resolution following the climax is unpacked, any final subplots and lingering questions are resolved, and the readers get a glimpse at the new normal for the world and your characters. Although this section is necessarily short (it becomes boring to linger too long), it is still important, as it gives your audience some space to absorb the impact of the climax as well as to savor the satisfaction of arriving at the end of a well-told tale. Getting this part right ensures that your readers will end on the emotional note of your choosing and solidifies their final impression of your book.
Hallmarks of a powerful resolution include:
A satisfying resolution has a feeling of finality, of the characters’ lives returning to a (new) stable configuration. The ultimate story might not be over just yet (in the case of a series), but at least for today the conflict has been resolved and the tempest has blown past. Additionally, any loose threads (subplots) need to be tied up by the end of the story, or your readers will experience an unpleasant feeling that you forgot something or that the tale concluded too abruptly. You should take a few scenes to celebrate the success of your central characters as well, so that your audience can vicariously share in the emotions arising from the completion of their difficult journey.
A good resolution should be clear. Any remaining mysteries should be put to rest by this point (whether the characters learn their truth or not). It is fine if the reader doesn’t know how every situation resolves, but in this case they should know that they weren’t told and not feel like the author simply never went back and addressed the issue. A bit of ambiguity is fine too (was the villain truly defeated?), but only if this is deliberate and not an unintended artifact of being vague.
No matter what the ultimate emotional tone of your ending, you should avoid making it too monochromic. Happy endings should be tempered with notes of loss or imperfection, while tragedies should still offer a glimmer of joy and hope. Just as with your characters, your ending should be neither perfectly wonderful nor devastatingly tragic, as adding hints of other emotions will grant your conclusion a sense of authenticity and realism.
Brevity (without feeling rushed)
Again, this section is where you wrap things up and prepare to say goodbye, so the resolution should really only take a chapter or two to conclude at most. You don’t want your ending to feel rushed, but neither should you draw out the resolution too far. Once you decide on the endpoint of your story, resist the temptation to write additional scenes solely for the purpose of spending more time with your characters.
The farewell scene of your novel is the last decision you will need to make regarding your plot. As it comes at the end of the resolution, I recommend that you don’t let this final scene play out for more than a few pages at most. Just decide on how you want to say goodbye and then get it over with. Some authors like to leave the reader with a final thought (perhaps in the form of a brief internal monologue by the protagonist), while others may skip ahead to some point in the future to show the lasting impact of the story’s events.
Either way, keep in mind that this is the last moment your reader will experience in the world of your story, so decide on a final note that rings true to your theme and conflict. This is also where the transition to the next story arc occurs in multi-novel stories. Usually this is just a glimmer (shaped in the form of a hook) of what the next book will be about.
Subplots and scenes: A deeper dive into plot construction
For our last entry in this chapter to planning out your plot, I want to take a closer look at three final components of story-building, (various types of) scenes, subplots, and character arcs. We have discussed scenes of rising and falling tension a bit already, but now we are going to explore what they are and how to use them in greater detail, as well as the nuances of subplots and plot twists, before ending our discussion with a few thoughts on character arc, the intersection of character and plot.
Scenes of rising vs. falling tension
I will be discussing the intricacies of scene-crafting in the drafting section of this guide, as well as in later blog entrees. So for today’s discussion, I will limit the scope of my analysis to scenes of rising and falling tension. In general, a novel will include many more scenes of rising tension (at least as far as the word count is concerned), but understanding how both work is just as important as putting on both shoes before stepping outside.
From the opening scene all the way up to the climax, the overall level of tension present in your narrative should continue to rise. Thus, most of the scenes in your novel will feature elements of rising tension. Scenes of falling tension help to moderate this process, as well as to give the reader (and characters) a bit of time to decompress and absorb the events they just experienced. Scenes of falling tension usually follow major scenes and almost always proceed pivotal events. They can be used to alter the pace of the narrative, to compress time or change location, to allow for character development and interaction, as well as to give your subplots a place to live (although major subplots will generally tend to follow the same pattern of rising and falling tension as your main plotline).
Free yourself from the paradigm of scene and sequel, but do take the time to learn from the strengths of this approach.
This is a good time to bring up the concept of scene and sequel (coined by Dwight Swain), also sometimes referred to as action and reaction scenes. In its original (and in most cases modern) iteration, scenes and squeals represent the attempt to create a formula for a successful plot, largely by reducing the entire plotting process to two base elements. Personally, I find the result to be overly reductionistic, limiting, and forced. However, the attempt was a noble one and many authors do still swear by this technique.
In the action phase (scenes), characters attempt to achieve a goal in the face of some manner of conflict, often winding up in a worse position then when they began. A scene is further divided into three phases (goal, conflict, and disaster) and is always followed by a sequel.
Sequel scenes on the other hand, are reactive and possess little action and no conflict. They are intended to grant the characters space for introspection and reflection, as they absorb and react to the events of the paired scene. At some point in this process, the characters will come to a decision, the event that launches them into the next scene, now armed with a new goal. Sequel scenes are also divided into three steps or stages (reaction, dilemma, and decision). In this framework, scenes and sequels continue to alternate until the end of the novel, creating a steady pace and flow.
So what’s not to like about this framework?
Well for one thing, it attempts to take a highly complex concept (scene-crafting) and reduce it to a simple, almost mathematical formula. While this is interesting as an intellectual exercise, stories and the human experience of digesting them are far too complex to by accurately modeled with such a basic formula. For another, many successful stories heavily modify this pattern or ignore it all together. For example, longer scenes may include elements of both rising and falling tension (scene and sequel), and it is perfectly ok to string together scenes of rising and falling action without alternating them (just don’t let the tension go slack).
The level of tension present in the plot vs. a given scene
You can (and should) continue to use scenes of falling tension for pacing, even when the overall tension in the plot is rocketing towards the climax. In this case, you can think of your scenes of falling tension as the release valve on a steam engine, occasionally letting off a bit of pressure here and there so that the boiler doesn’t go critical before the big moment.
Should I always alternate scenes of rising and falling tension?
No! While this is a powerful construction that will serve you well in the pages ahead, many stories mix up and vary this pattern to great effect. Ultimately, you should write whatever scene best serves the story you are telling. One fairly common variation is to begin a scene of falling tension, only to almost immediately interrupt it with a second crisis, ratcheting up the adrenaline once more as thing head for the true resolution of the scene.
A momentary victory might only be the eye of the storm, or the warm up (or even precipitation) for the true predicament. Note that it is more than possible (and probably a good idea) to intermix individual notes of rising and falling tension into longer scenes, less the constant pace lull the reader into boredom or competency, even in the middle of the action.
Additionally, breaking the alternation of rising and falling tension allows for powerful techniques such as:
- The cliffhanger.
- The fake out.
- Unexpected humor.
- Other advanced tools of scene-crafting I will be covering in a later installment of this guide.
Core plot vs. subplots
I am going to get into the nuance of subplots a bit further down in this post, but I wanted to draw a distinction early on regarding the differences between your main plotline and the various subplots you will be sprinkling throughout your novel. Outside of shorter pieces, most novels involve multiple subplots that are introduced and resolved over time as the main plot progresses.
Main (core) plots:
- Revolve around the protagonist(s) and the story’s central oppositional force.
- Ultimately climax and conclude near the end of the novel.
- Add flavor, depth, complexity, and pacing to the main plot.
- Are important to some of the characters, but not to everyone.
- Help to reveal the personality, drives, relationships, and passions of your characters.
Why do subplots matter?
Including subplots in your novel is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they allow for you to write longer pieces that are deeper and more robust than a simple Freytag’s pyramid. Additionally, they help to retain your readers’ interest, allowing for moments of intensity when the main plot is still unfolding, as well as interludes of levity during the midst of the pre-climax. Subplots also add complexity and diversity to your story and its world, allowing for characters to deal with a variety of conflicts and interpersonal relationships beyond the novel’s central oppositional force.
On that note, subplots are where you can carve out some space to reveal the personality and life-experiences of your cast. Where the character goals and arcs of your non-protagonists get to spread their wings and take flight. They are invaluable tools for adding contrast to your main plot as well, allowing you to alter the pacing and emotional overtone of the story without interfering with the main progression of rising tension.
In short, subplots more than matter. They are a critical tool that no successful author can afford to ignore. The better you become at crafting vibrant subplots and weaving them into your overall tale, the more engaging your novel will become.
Major vs. minor subplots
As with several other constructs, I like to divide my subplots into the categories of major and minor. Major subplots should be structured in a manner similar to the main plotline, in that there should be a hook, goal, and a primary conflict, followed by a series of progressive scenes that eventually lead to a climax and resolution sometime before the end of the book. These subplots should feature significant consequences and outcomes for the characters involved in them, often corresponding to their individual character arcs. A major subplot might be resolved over the course of a single scene, but are more commonly spread out over the course of the story.
Minor subplots on the other hand, are included more for texture and flavor than to directly change the trajectory of the narrative. They can take the form of minor mysteries to be resolved later on, but are often complete in the scene or chapter they first appear in.
Adding subplots to flesh out your characters and enrich your tale
Going back to our story as a stew metaphor, subplots are the spices and garnish that transform a hearty meal into a savory banquet. Although they can be individually identified, they are ultimately inseparable from the rest of the story. Subplots do not exist in isolation from each other either, as their effects on the overall story merge within the reader’s imagination. These impacts can be subtle, a wave from the bow as two ships pass in the night, or intersect as conclusively as two freight trains colliding. Remember that your major subplots each need their own climax and resolution that takes place before the end of the novel.
Every new central character adds a subplot to your story as well (doubly so for those used as the point of view for multiple scenes), as their personal character goals get tossed into the brew (although some of these might be resolved by the events of the core plot). Do attempt to limit the total number of subplots to a manageable level, as too many will dilute the power of your core plot.
A few points to consider when crafting subplots
Subplots should always:
- Possess a distinct purpose for being.
- Help to explain the world or enhance our understanding of the characters.
- Be important to at least one central character.
- Add variety to the events of the main plot.
How to handle adding subplots to your story
Crafting and developing subplots relies on the same skills and principals used in planning out your core plotline. The main difference is that they are smaller in scope and usually involve conflicts other than the novel’s primary oppositional force. At its most fundamental level, a subplot contains five elements:
- A hook to introduce it.
- A problem or a goal to address.
- A conflict that makes solving the problem difficult.
- A climatic moment where things come to a head.
- A resolution.
This doesn’t mean that some of your subplots won’t be fairly complex, spanning many scenes before they ultimately resolve. In general, try to treat your subplots as intact short stories, in that they should feel complete if you read the included scenes back to back without any of the rest of the novel. With longer subplots, you will want to first divide them into individual scenes and then portion them across your main plotline (see the exercise in the next section on crafting your master plotline).
Dealing with plot twists
On its most fundamental level, a plot twist is defined as a surprising revelation or event that takes place at some point in a story. A solid plot twist is exciting and leaves the reader with something to mull over for some time to come. Plot twists can be large or small (but beware of overusing them) and can occur at any point in the story (not only the climax). However, in order to be both effective and enjoyable, a good twist needs to be carefully set up beforehand.
Why bother adding plot twists at all?
Plot twists can be used to add unexpected excitement, to change the meaning of current events, our feelings regarding characters (the sidekick was the villain all along), and to reverse fortunate outcomes/outlooks during major scenes. They are also frequently used when killing off some of your central characters. I like to think of plot twists as adding an element I call benign unpredictability (or fun surprise) to an already engaging narrative. Plot twists can also be used to resolve several story arcs at once, as multiple subplots collide in an unexpected fashion and then resolve together in the same scene. Major plot twists are commonly placed in a story’s climax, but they can be used to great effect to prime or catalyze the the moments preceding the climax too (as well as during the dark night of the soul).
How to set up a solid plot twist
In order for a twist to be meaningful and effective, there must be ample setup that occurs in the pages prior. My rule is that the biggest twists should receive the most setup, so major twists occurring in the climax should have their groundwork laid during the middle of the plot if not before. There are two major elements involved in this kind of setup, foreshadowing and direct clues, both of which should be presented with elements of misdirection, so that the twist isn’t too obvious before the big reveal. Well-crafted plot twists should be hard to see coming, but still make perfect sense when they occur as well as when the novel is read a second time.
In no particular order, here are some things to keep in mind when working out your twists:
- Only include plots twists with a clear purpose, with an eye for the reader’s reaction. Always try to view things from the reader’s perspective (what do they know and what have they been lead to believe?).
- Always set up plot twists ahead of time, otherwise they will generate confusion, sap satisfaction, and break immersion.
- Make sure that each twist is believable, necessary, and makes sense in the context of your story, as a forced or false seeming twist will frustrate the reader greatly.
- Don’t be afraid of a bit of artful misdirection. This means that when you place clues in the text, the focus of the action should be elsewhere. Just like a magician’s trick, the setup happens in plain sight, but never where the audience’s eyes are focused in that moment (for example, try dropping some solid hints into the middle of an exciting battle). Other forms of misdirection include red herrings, where information is included that is designed to help the reader form a false assumption, and dead ends, where the expected outcome is suddenly and definitively shot down (the primary suspect is slain by the murderer).
- Subtle foreshadowing can be used to set up clever twists as well. As with direct hints, these clues should be small enough that they are easily missed the first time, but seem like neon signposts when read a second time after learning the truth. This leads to the kind of “of course surprise” you are looking for.
- Never rely on gimmicks or cliché, as these will torpedo your reader’s engagement.
- Try to create a twists that create or resolve mysteries and that make the reader think.
- Maintain the momentum after the big moment. The action following a twist is just as vital to its success as the setup and execution.
- Subplots and flashbacks are great places to set up twists, as the information contained in them can intersect with the main plot in interesting ways later on. This means that a seemingly small subplot can play a much greater role in the story than it initially appears (an old bone that the dog found a few chapters back is actually the missing evidence, etc.)
Character arc: The intersection of character and plot
As we discussed when planning out your characters, each member of your central cast must possess a concrete goal. This can take the form of a passionate desire, a desperate need, or anything in between. Imagine a story where the characters were already totally happy and content. Where nothing has gone catastrophically wrong and there is nothing in their world that needs to change. Well, you wouldn’t really have a story at all. There would be no hook to engage your reader and none of the tension required to keep them turning those pages. In short, if you don’t have characters with clear goals, you don’t have a plot to begin with.
The goal of your protagonist should be especially urgent, meaningful, specific, and difficult to achieve. And the needs of your other main characters should be impactful as well. The forces that prevent them from being able to easily achieve their goals are key sources of opposition in your story, serving as critical foci around which the structure of your subplots will revolve.
Do my central characters really need an arc?
Yes, they really do. Although not all of your characters will change greatly over the course of your tale, the human experience of watching others struggle and triumph (or fail) is a powerful source of emotion in a story. Furthermore, we expect people to change when their world is turned upside down and they have battled long and hard in the face of opposing forces, confronting and surpassing their own weaknesses and limitations along the way.
I think most of us want to believe that our own struggles and suffering are meaningful and we gain this by finding meaning in the stories of others. Thus, not including this kind of change cheapens the meaning of your characters’ conflicts. While character arcs vary greatly in how much change they enact, there should always be a clear direction. Having a sense of this arc early on will prove invaluable as you include your characters in later scenes.
What kind of arc is best for my character?
As with the other narrative elements we covered, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to character arc. A character’s arc represents their internal and external journey over the course of a novel and a character can change in more than one way as a result of their experiences. Remember that not every central character needs to be given a wide arc, but they should all change in perceptible ways in response to the struggles they overcome.
In general, a character’s arc is inseparably bound to their character goals. To those wants and needs we baked into their design early on. Also, bear in mind that not all character arcs are positive, some are sad (the character slowly drifts off into delusion or mental illness) and some are negative (the character becomes corrupted or succumbs to temptation). The hero can even become a villain (or vice versa). Regardless of their emotional overtone, your character arcs should be believable, meaningful, and satisfying to your reader.
Alright that’s it for this lengthy section on plot theory, see you in the next entry for our culminating plotting exercise: Crafting your master timeline and plotline.