The idea for a novel can start with a character, story idea, a concept, a question, a what if? Or a story world. We will start with the plot, because we have to start somewhere. If you’ve already started with another element of the story don’t worry, all these workshops are interchangeable and can be done in almost any order.
The primary function of a fiction writer is to tell a story. At the very minimum you need a three line plot. This consists of
- A Premise – what is the story about.
- Complication(s) – (But) what difficulties do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome these complications
- A Climax – How your characters over the complications and resolve the story.
How your character(s) overcome the complications of the plot forms the main body of your story. Without complications, objections, and hurdles for your characters to overcome, your story will fall flat, because all stories are about how humans overcome conflict. Stories are so hard-wired into human nature, that even stories we think are about something else are ultimately about humans.
In fact, the more difficult you make it for your characters, the more their personalities will be exposed and the more interesting your story will become. Plotting is really all about storytelling and storytelling is all about conflict.
For instance: a Princess is born, grows up, meets the Prince of her dreams, gets married and lives happily ever after is not a very interesting story (unless you are three years old). A Princess grows up overcoming the eccentricities of her parents, meets the Prince of her dreams who turns out to be a monster, but the Princesses’ pure love helps the Princes overcome his Monstrous traits – Beauty and the Beast – is more interesting. Add that the two families are monstrous and compare that against the forbidden pure love of the prince and princess and you have Romeo and Juliet, turn pure love into obsession and you have Twilight. It’s all about what your characters have to overcome and how they go about it that makes your story interesting.
In Gaia’s Brood, the three line plot is:
- A girl goes on a quest to discover how her mother died.
- But, hidden forces conspire against her quest.
- Why these complications arise is answered in an unexpected confrontation with the story villains, creating the climax of the story.
In Helium3 the plot lines are:
- A boy wishes to pursue his dream of racing space sleds.
- But, he is a chronic outsider and the system is fixed against him.
- A confrontation with injustice and the boy’s nemesis form the climax of the story.
How may complications can you have? One. Keep it simple, make your story about one overriding issue, one theme, and one only. If you find you have more than one, try to split them out into separate plots – now you have two stories and you are on your way to a series.
At this stage concentrate on the overall picture, there will be plenty of time for detail later in your story arcs, sub-plots, character journeys, and story beats, all of which will be covered in future workshops. For now, keep playing with your three line plot until you have something that grabs you or intrigues you, it’s not easy, but it pay dividends in the end: if the plot grabs you, it will grab your readers too.
Plotting Exercises: Try sketching out a couple of simple, three line, plots each day: A Premise, A Complication, and A Climax. The more you practice plot writing the easier it becomes, and sooner or later you are going to hit on that original plot that you cannot get out of your head and which turns into your next story. Let me know how you get on and please share any questions, ideas or your own process in the comments.
Tip: If you have difficulty separating your characters from the plot, (I always seem to let the characters get in the way, which produces a kind of writer’s block when it comes to plot writing), describe the story in basic fairytale stereotypes: desperate king tries to marry off his daughter to a rich prince, but the prince is a monster, however, love conquers all and the monster is tamed by the princesses love – beauty and the beast. Or, a lonely princess and a cursed prince fall for each other, but their love turns into obsession which threatens to destroy both of them and lead to war, however love overcomes the impossible divide and war is averted – Twilight (note that being a vampire is not part of the plot outline, but a consequence of a character trait). Well it works for me.
Keep writing, Nick.
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