Often this question brings confused looks.
And then, tags telling what the book’s about:
“This is about 3 young women finding love, betrayal, and breakups.”
“In my book, a group of friends lives in NYC with all of the challenges therein (a la Friends).
“This book follows the tribulations of young Kerry, as she finds her way in the world.”
See the commonalities?
What we have here is a description of the characters. Something about what they’re going to face.
But nothing in there says anything about plot.
I see this so often—books that tell stories about people, but nothing really happens. No thread of the narrative plot weaves through these tales. In essence, they’re somewhat storylines, but they have no established plot.
A storyline is what the characters go through. And yes, that’s vital in a great book. But that still doesn’t address the overall plot.
So, what is a plot?
Absolutely—the plot refers to the events in a story. Everything that goes into the story is part of the plot.
In other words, plot provides the overall umbrella under which the story unfolds.
But let’s ferret out exactly what plot is.
First and foremost, find the essence of your plot in the Story Question
The Story Question is that main dilemma or problem your main character is faced with, must answer and solve by the end of the book.
It gets the tale started. This needs to be apparent right off the bat. The first paragraph is great. But always by the end of the first page.
This focuses your book. Every single scene has to have a piece of this story question.
This helps direct your characters as they go through the events of the book.
It also anchors your reader to the entire story, gives him something to focus on, and keeps him involved.
The climax of the book must answer this question—whether the hero succeeds or fails.
NOTE: Your reader will lose interest in anything that doesn’t contain a piece of this story question. Veer off at great peril.
The plot must have a discernible beginning, middle, and end.
Again, the storyline is part of this, but only part. We achieve the true movement through the story with:
The Story Arc
This is the framework for how your plot plays out. No matter the genre in which you’re writing, this arc comes into play.
And, it’s quite definable.
Yes, you can deviate from it some, but again, weigh what you lose vs what you gain. Rarely does it work to veer far from this structure.
This arc follows the hero’s quest. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a political thriller or a romance, your hero must go through the trials and tribulations on the journey to answering the Story Question.
I’ve talked about this a lot. You achieve this through major plot points, and minor ones. This is what keeps your book moving, as your hero progresses through the story.
Part of the Scene
You know these, right?
First, you set the scene. You create the people within it–their roles, their feelings, etc. You evoke the mood, through imagery and metaphor. You put your reader smack dab in the middle of it.
Then, you create conflict. Conflict encompasses five main themes: Man against himself. Man against man. Man against environment. Man against nature. Man against machine. How did the conflict come about? What were its roots? How is each person within it involved? How is the reader involved? Conflict has very little to do with guns firing. It is rather what blows apart within a character.
Something has to give. Something or someone has to get. Something has to be happening in your story. The protagonist is in conflict with an antagonist while enroute to a goal. The character must resolve his conflict–within, without–for the story to have meaning.
The conflict comes to a climax. The character can either: withdraw from the conflict; accept the conflict as unresolvable; resolve all or part of the conflict.
Denouement. The scene slows down. The smoke begins to clear. What is left after the conflict’s fire can be seen.
Resolution. Something is learned from the conflict, even if the knowledge is that the character knows he cannot resolve it. Or, that he now has a piece with which to resolve it later. This sets up the next scene.
This is the exact same structure for the entire book. In other words, what works in the microcosm, works in the macrocosm.
The Story Question that arises with the initial conflict, the thing that knocks your hero out of her status-quo existence, carries the core conflict through the entire book, and in the end, gets resolved—one way or another.
This structure makes sure you have an actual plot as your people go through the joys and triumphs, the sorrows and failures of your novel.
And in the end, it provides a satisfying read.