The convention goes that there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. I seem to fall somewhere in between. But I don’t expect the term ‘plontser’ to take off any time soon. The reality is, writers exist on a spectrum of plotting – everyone does it to varying degrees before they write. but it’s probably safe to say that everyone does it differently and the trick to getting the words on the page is to find a way that works for you. However, regardless of whether you plan obsessively, or not at all, I think it’s helpful for every writer to have an idea of the basic elements of story structure. Plotting can either be used as a planning tool or a diagnostic tool. You may plot before you write, or you may use it after your first draft, to ensure the story is sound, or to figure out why your story isn’t quite working as you’d hoped.
But, you say, I don’t want to write a book to a formula! Absolutely right. The fundamentals of plotting shouldn’t feel restrictive. There are plenty of books (successful ones) that break ‘the rules’ of plotting. And yet, it’s also hard to deny there are certain fundamentals that seem to link all stories – one is that things must happen, and the other is that these things (or events) should be causally linked – in other words there must be a reason why one event leads to another, and usually that reason is your character and their motivation. Things happen but why? Because your character is motivated – they want something – the decisions they make and the actions they take are driven by this desire.
In this post, I’m going to outline three ways of plotting – two that are quite simple, and one that is far more detailed. Of course, there are more, but each method is essentially a variation on the same key concepts, just with differing levels of detail.
1. The Four Fundamentals.
This is the simplest method of plotting, containing just four elements:
– an inciting incident (which I talked about in this post: Where to Begin Your Story)
– a crisis
If an inciting incident is an event that happens to the character, then the crisis is where the character takes control. It usually happens about half way through the book and it’s where the protagonist takes charge of their own destiny.
The climax is generally the emotional high point of the novel, where the author delivers the pay off for what they’ve been promising. It’s also usually where a character’s three level of conflicts – the internal, external and physical – come together.
The resolution is fairly self explanatory. It’s how the book ends – the character may have won, or lost, or experienced a little of both ie a win that comes at a cost.
2. The Disney Method
Need I explain how this method arose?
But even if you’re not writing a Disney movie, I find this is an easy way to come up with a short synopsis for your book. Bascially, the idea is to see if you can fit your story into the following description:
Once upon a time there were/was…. (this is where you name your character, perhaps what they do and who they are)
Every day…. (What is life like for this character. What’s an average day for them. What’s missing.)
One day… (the inciting incident incurs)
Because of that… (What are the consequences of the inciting event. What does your character do? Do they go on some kind of journey)
Because that… (More fun and games. Your character keeps trying and failing)
Until finally… (things come to a head. Your character succeeds or fails, but there is a resolution of sorts)
3. The Three Act Method
This one is the big grandaddy of them all – and, again, one that has its origins in stage and screen, but works perfectly well for novel writing. Apart from having three acts, this structure also tends to come with particular ‘turning points’ that each serve a different purpose.
To master this kind of plotting, the best idea is to do a workshop with a specialist in the area, or read one of the many books written on the topic. I’ve recently read Save the Cat Writes a Novel, which I highly recommend. To me, this kind of plot structure can be applied to any story but is particularly suited to a ‘hero’s journey’ type story where the focus is very much on a protatgonist’s transformation.