Plotting a book is one of those things that many writers struggle with—including me. As much as we might want to dive in to a book and just write, one of the first things we’ve got to do is plot, right? That’s our job.
But what if it wasn’t?
What if we could leave the plotting to someone else and create better stories in the process?
Well, that’s what I’m going to suggest here, along with a different way of thinking about plot. Here’s the basic idea:
Plot doesn’t come from the mind of the author. Plot comes from the character.
At its most basic, what is plot? Plot is action. Plot is action taken by a character. Now, why does a character act? Well, for the same reason you and I do in our daily lives. We want something. Or, we have a problem that must be solved. So:
Character + Problem/Goal = Plot (Action)
Which brings me to my snake story. One day, I was home with my son (who was about 15 at the time), when suddenly he screamed. There was a snake on the stairs. (Apparently they can come in through air vents.)
We both leapt into action.
Which meant more screaming.
As it turns out, he and I are both unreasonably afraid of snakes—even this one that wasn’t poisonous.
Being the rational Mom, I called animal control, Googled snake sites and posted a “HELP!” message on Facebook. No luck.
At the same time, my son, always ready to dive into action, retrieved “weapons” from his room. A baseball bat. A trashcan. He got a broom and a dust pan but as soon as the snake squirmed, we screamed again and leapt back. Finally, he called a friend. Ten minutes later, a girl came over. She calmly picked up the snake and carried it out back. End of story.
But I often think about that snake because it’s such a vivid example of how differently each of us reacts when confronted with a new situation.
How we act/react is what creates story.And what we do is based on who we are
It works the same in a book.
One of my favorite books on craft is by Stephen King. This is one of my favorite excerpts:
“I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I love this way of thinking about story like a situation. Putting your characters in some sort of predicament and then watching them try to work themselves free.
I think the danger of creating a plot and then plugging in the characters is you can end up with a story that isn’t believable. It’s like the girl in the horror movie who goes into a dark basement with a serial killer on the loose. Who does that? Every time I put down a book unfinished, it’s because the characters are doing things that the author wants them to do—not the things they would actually do.
Now, here’s where the hard work comes in. (You didn’t think you were getting off easy, did you?) You, as the author, have three very important jobs.
- In order to force your character into action, you must give them problems—bad ones.
- You must create high stakes for failure so the reader cares if they succeed or not.
- You have to flesh out your character so well that you know what they would do next. Because they have strengths and flaws and fears and dreams that motivate their actions—the same way that ours do.
Here’s an exercise I often turn to when I’m not sure what should happen next. It also comes in handy when I’m starting a new project. At the top of a page, write out the predicament your character finds himself/herself in. Then, write down five to ten things that your character might do. Here’s an example of how this turned out for me in my latest book, A Matter of Heart.
PREDICAMENT: Abby’s heart falls out of rhythm and she faints after competing in a swim meet.
- She hides it.
- She decides it’s electrolyte imbalance and vows to drink more Gatorade
- She tells her coach like she knows she’s supposed to.
- She asks her dad to call 911.
- She pulls herself from the next race; decides to rest a few days.
- She’s happy—fainting means she’s putting out maximum effort.
- She wonders if she’s pregnant.
- She uses it to get sympathy from her boyfriend.
So, some of those are ridiculous. (Abby has never had sex so number 7 is pretty far-fetched.) But the exercise got me thinking about Abby and exactly what type of person she is. Also, it helped me focus on what Abby wants. (Remember, characters are motivated by what they need/desire.) Abby’s only goal is to keep swimming. Knowing that, the only possible action for Abby is to hide it if possible and if not, blame the fainting on electrolytes. And keep swimming.
Of course, there’s Abby’s mom. Abby’s mom also has one goal. And that’s to keep Abby from swimming until she’s checked out. It’s a little bit like Dominos—one falls and that pushes the next one and the next one.
Now, as the author, you will have to jump back in with more obstacles on occasion. If your character is succeeding, then what else can you throw at them? Which is why creating a worthy villain will make your job that much easier.
Give it a try and see if it works for you. Choose any predicament at any point in the book. If you’re feeling brave, post it here in the comments! I’d love to see what you come up with.
Amy Fellner Dominy is the author of OyMG (2011) a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens, and Audition & Subtraction (2012) a Bank Street’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.” A former advertising copywriter, Amy earned an MFA in playwriting in 2004. Her plays for adults and children have been staged across the country. Amy lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find her at http://www.amydominy.com.
Amy is giving away a copy of A MATTER OF HEART. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. This prize cannot be shipped internationally. Good luck!
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