Saturday, January 19

How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

The Building Blocks Of Story: Plot Elements

Why care about plot elements? Because if all the elements of plot are in place--if they are clear and concrete--then you'll have a stronger story. Why? It will be easier to spot holes in the story. Also, it will show whether a scene is necessary to advance the story. If it's not then cut it!

The Benefits Of Knowing Where You Want To Go

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is one of the best blogs on writing it has been my pleasure to read this past year.

And, of course, one of the reasons I love it is because she's a fellow plotter. Sure, the actual writing is done pantser style--whatever happens, happens, and I adjust my outline to reflect the story, not the other way around--but I like to know where I'm going, I like a roadmap, before I head out.

(Occasionally I wish I could be one of those types who can step outside, be inspired by the loveliness of the day--the sunlight, the warm fragrant breeze, the distant laughter of children--and decide to take a drive with no particular destination in mind. I had a friend who did this and it was splendid! But he always ended up somewhere interesting and there was always a gas station nearby. I don't have that kind of luck.)

So, there you are, at your desk. You have a scene to write, what do you do? How do you plan your scene? (What follows was inspired by Janice Hardy's excellent article: Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes.)

Here's more or less what I do, or at least what I try to do!

1. Write a summary of the scene

If I'm writing a first draft I usually just write out what I know. For instance, if I'm sure my protagonist gets into a car accident and that she's saved from the twisted wreckage by a starving vampire then I'll write that down. At this stage I'm (for the most part) telling not showing. There will be minimal description of the setting and just raw dialog without any tags ('he said,' 'she said').

If I'm editing my first draft I'll take more time. Dialog tags will go in and, at the beginning of the scene, I'll type out the answers to a few questions (see below). If I don't know all the answers, that's perfectly fine, I'll just write in what I know now and fill the rest in later.

2. The Elements That Drive Your Plot

- What is your protagonist's goal in this scene?
- Why that goal? What's her motivation?
- What obstacle(s) prevent her from achieving her goal?

Answering these questions is important because it can help reveal whether this scene is necessary. For instance, if your protagonist's goal isn't tied in with the story goal--what your protagonist has to achieve by the end of the book in order to succeed in her quest--then the scene doesn't advance the story and should be either re-worked or cut.

By the time you're ready to send your baby, your manuscript, out to beta readers you should be able to answer all these questions:


Whose point of view is the scene being told from?

Narrative point of view

First, second or third? If third, is it subjective, objective or omniscient? (Narrative point of view)

POV character's external goal

In each and every scene all your characters must want something, they must have goals. Even if your teenaged character just wants to be left alone in his bedroom to play video games and eat nacho chips, that's a goal. That said, many times your other character's goals will be determined by your POV character's goal.

Make sure the POV character's goal is both clear (no ambiguity) and concrete (something you can see and touch). You can have a more abstract goal, but there should be a way to cash it out in concrete terms.

POV character's internal goal

Internal goals can be tricky. Give me a nice clear concrete goal like, "Rescue the Ark from the Nazi's" and I'm happy. The goal is clear (get the ark) and it's clear whether the hero has succeeded (does Indiana Jones have the ark?).

But your characters have inner goals as well as outer. The example I always think of here is Mitch McDeere from The Firm, how his inner goal was to get as far away from the trailer park of his youth as he could. He was afraid, at least in part, that his wife, Abby, would leave him if he wasn't rich, if he couldn't provide her the kind of life she'd been used to. He was wrong about Abby, but this was his fear, his inner motivation for being a rich lawyer.

Your POV character will have an inner and outer motivation for each scene but I wouldn't worry if you don't have a clear idea what their inner motivation is on the second draft. That's the sort of thing that often emerges with the story, and the story often doesn't take its final form until you've gone through a few drafts.

External Complication

What is going to keep your character from achieving her goal? If your character were to achieve all her scene goals the story would be dull.

Similarly, if the POV character always flat-out failed to achieve the goal that wouldn't be interesting either. She needs to be frustrated in her attempts, she needs to be forced to modify her plans and adopt Plan B, another goal that will--they hope!--get them closer to achieving their final, ultimate, story goal. (See: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)


This is one of the most important aspects of any scene. What will happen if your POV character doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

The stakes need to be, like the goal, both clear and concrete. (See: Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High)


What happens? At the very end of the scene, after the POV character has dodged all the proverbial (or not so proverbial) bullets, what happens? Does she achieve the scene goal? Probably not. Not completely. Usually some new complication is introduced.

An Example


A young woman, let's call her Anne, suffering from haemophilia cuts herself and must drive to the nearest hospital and receive treatment. If she doesn't get treated she'll die. On the way to the hospital a drunk driver slams his car into hers turning them both into twisted hunks of metal. Anne receives many cuts and starts to bleed out.

A starving vampire finds Anne, drawn by the smell of blood. He extracts her from the wreck and enjoys a nice light snack. Something in his saliva, or perhaps a substance released from his fangs, causes her blood to coagulate.

At the end of the scene the vampire decides he likes the taste of her blood and considers whether he should drain her dry or leave her to find her own way home (and possibly turn into a vampire).

The Elements That Drive Your Plot

POV: The young woman, Anne.

Narrative point of view: Third person subjective, also called third person limited.

POV character's external goal: Get treatment at the nearest hospital --> Survive the car crash --> Survive the vampire's tender attentions.

POV character's internal goal: To be able to live without fear of cutting herself and dying because she can't get treatment. To be normal or at least to find someone who will love her even though she isn't.

Stakes: If our POV character doesn't get treatment she will die; if she does, she'll live. The POV character will also likely die if she doesn't get away from the vampire, if she does get away, though, she will be terrified that she'll change into a vampire.

Climax: Our POV character didn't get to the hospital for treatment, but she no longer needs it. The vampire's bite saved her from bleeding to death, but now she has a bigger problem: The vampire is looking at her and he still looks hungry.

Or something like that! That isn't the best example, I made it up on the fly. Hopefully it'll give you an idea of what I've been talking about.

Janice Hardy goes over much more in her article Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes. It's well worth the read!

Other articles you might like:

- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection
- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Photo credit: "Geisha's taken my place in bed" by Dirigentens under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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