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How to Plot a Story

I once read a writing book, title escapes me at the moment, that dared me to describe my current novel in two sentences. I took the challenge and tried my darndest. But my novel contained so many literary themes and nuances, it couldn't be reduced to two measly sentences. 

In other words, I didn't have a plot.

It's a fundamental truth that most fiction writers will create their first few stories without a clear understanding of plot. The reason for this prevalent confusion, I suspect, may be due to some overly complicated explanations. I'm sure at some point you've read an article or two on the subject, and you've probably walked away scratching your head. But plot isn't some mysterious code that can be deciphered only by scholars. Plot is available to anyone who understands the difference between a story and an idea.

Let's say a woman has a flat tire on the way to work. That's an idea. A premise. A foundation on which to build a story. And if she stays in the car whining that her ungrateful daughter lost her cell phone or lamenting the sorry nature of a husband who doesn't look after his wife's car or lusting after her best friend's hot he-man who surely knows how to change a flat… we still have nothing but an idea. 

It becomes a story only when the woman decides to DO something about her situation.

Now let's take that same idea—woman has a flat tire on the way to work—and insert a goal. What does she want? The obvious answer is to get to work on time. But let's boost the tension by inserting a hint of desperation: to get to work early to retrieve a damaging note she inadvertently left on her boss' desk. Now we have the reader's attention.

Of course we can easily remedy her situation by giving her a cell phone or a crash course on changing a flat. She'd be on her way in no time. But we wouldn't have a story, we'd have an incident. And a boring one at that. No, nothing can be easy for our heroine. To make her story sizzle, it must be bursting with Conflict—y'know, anything (animal, mineral or vegetable) that works against her. And we find conflict simply by using the most important plot device we have: asking, What if…? 

What if the woman tries to change the flat, but breaks the jack? What if she spots a cabin on the other side of a vacant field and runs toward it? What if the field isn't vacant after all and she's chased by an angry bull? What if she gets caught in a barbed wire fence and opens an artery? What if she crawls to the cabin and finds no one but a friendly dog? What if she spots an old truck, keys inside, and drives off? What if… what if… what if? The climax is the moment she finally arrives at work and deals with the note. What if... what if? The ending is not far behind.

That's a story.

Every action our heroine takes is driven by the desire to get to work early, but every thing she encounters appears to conspire against her. We hook readers not by describing a series of disconnected events, but by leading them down the same distinct path our character travels. We point to her goal, up there on the hill, then we show, one by one, the precarious pitfalls that lurk on the way. Will she make it? they ask. Will she ever overcome these obstacles and accomplish what she set out to do? That's the million dollar question. And the million dollar question is what turns the page. 

The more comfortable we become with plot, the more fun we can have with it. Some great storytellers change the goal in midstream. For example, if our heroine comes up on a crying baby or an escaped rapist, her priorities change dramatically. Suddenly getting to work isn't half as important as dealing with what stares her in the face. Then there are subplots, smaller stories that run parallel but connect to the big story. Or reverse storytelling, a structure that opens with the climax and works back to the beginning. Within the perimeter of plot, we're only limited by our imagination!

But whether it's a fable or a saga, this plotting business can send even the most organized mind into a tailspin. That's why an outline is such a valuable tool. It needn't be a formal paper with bullets and brackets and headings. It needn't be more than a single paragraph describing the ACTION and the POINT of each scene. 

Think of all the things we do before we take a trip: pack our bags, get directions, stop the mail, fill the gas tank, make arrangements for the pets, etc. Well, as writers, we are taking our readers on a figurative trip and our stories deserve just as much preparation. 

So let's map the journey from beginning to end. Let's head our character in a specific direction, with a detailed itinerary in tow, and arrive at a specific destination. And last but not least, let's describe it all in two measly sentences. 

A plot is the obstacle-ridden path a character takes to accomplish his goal.

About the Author

Elizabeth Guy is founder of ReadingWriters, editor of The VERB Writing Ezine and author of "Making a Scene with Mush Pump and Ice Noodle." Visit her at:

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