Welcome back! We took a brief hiatus in Florida. Great vacation, but no internet. But fear not, we’re back with our four part series on how to write the award-winning story with our next topic: plot!
Good plots need four things: a beginning, middle, and end (sounds like a duh but I’ll explain in a little bit).
But most importantly, every story needs conflict, or a problem that requires solving. Without that, there's nothing to hold the reader's interest. A perfect day in the life of Martha Stuart may make an excellent cook book, but it makes pretty dull reading until she gets arrested and thrown in jail. Conflict is often called "dramatic tension." What's driving the story forward, what causes us to ask "what'll happen next?" In a nut shell, what does the main character want more than anything else in the word? The answer often defines the genre. If our main character spends the entire book trying to figure out who killed Mr. Peabody, you probably have a mystery. If your character must travel to a far off land in search of a mystical relic or must slay some ultimate evil, you probably have a fantasy. Zombie attack=horror (or humor).
A small side note: Your main character has to have some personal investment in the goal. Frodo didn’t just want to throw the ring in the fires of Mordor because he had nothing better to do. The fact that the ring was in his family, that it chose him is central to the plot. Only he can bear the burden. In most detective stories, there’s either something unusual about the case that draws the detective in, or it taps into some part of his/her dark past. Personal investment in the goal leads naturally to internal conflict, which adds a lot of spice to a story.
Let's talk about how to develope your conflict. Here's where beginning, middle, and end come in. Some folks like to give specific fractions for these secions: 1/4 of your story should be beginning (setting up conflict), 1/2 middle (complications) and 1/4 end (climax/resolution). This works well for screenplays and other formulaic forms of writing, but I believe it’s a bit stiff for most prose. So here’s a more open way of looking at it.
As we discussed in the section on “beginning” last time, it’s not uncommon, and often preferred, if you start your story in the middle of the action, but at some point you do need to pull back and describe the characters, setting, and what’s going on. This is often accomplished through what I call a “pre-conflict.” A problem plagues the main character, but is really only a distraction or a symptom of a much bigger problem to come. For example, in Star Wars Episode IV we meet Luke Skywalker, a kid who really wants to leave his boring desert planet. Through his argument with his uncle, we learn about him, his world, his past, etc. But that minor conflict doesn’t turn out to be central to the story. In fact, he gets to leave without much trouble, as a result of the much bigger problem of having to fight the empire. I used a similar scenario in my novel Treasure Traitor. Rena runs away from home with her bird Acha because her parents are planning to kill him, but soon into her journey she learns that he only has a short life span. Finding a way to extend his life before it’s too late becomes the central conflict of the book. But running away from home was the jumping off point, the “pre-conflict” that allowed her to find out about the much bigger problem.
By the end of the beginning, you should have established the setting and main character and started that character on his or her journey (literal or figurative) to solve the major conflict. The middle is all about those twists and turns, the objects that stand in the way of the main character’s goal. To continue with our Star Wars example, before he even gets to the Death Star, Luke has to find a pilot to get him off Tatuine, survive a bar brawl, escape imperial fighter ships, rescue the princess, stop a garbage compactor from smashing him, and perform all kinds of other fetes of daring. (All in a day’s work.) You really want to make the conflict good? Make hell for your main character. It’s all right. Take out your frustration on them. Make them go through every embarrassing/uncomfortable/life threatening thing you’ve ever suffered and then some. For this moment, you are god to them. Enjoy it.
By the end of the middle your character should be standing on the precipice, the threshold of the final battle to get that thing they really want. Your heroine is about to go on that date with the man she truly loves and is wondering what the heck she’s going to say to him. Your detective is preparing to confront the killer. It’s OK to make them linger a little. But eventually something has to kick them in the pants and make them leap into that final showdown.
The end includes your climax and resolution (or to use a fancy French term, your “dénouement”). The climax should be everything you’ve made it out to be. You’ve spent anywhere from five lines (in flash fiction) to 900 pages (Battlefield Earth) preparing us for it. Make it good! Please no “and then she woke up.” Come on, that’s just plain lazy! You created the problem, you owe your character (and reader) the time and effort of solving it! Some people include a short “after conflict,” like in Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ve rescued Elizabeth and made the skeleton pirates mortal, but Jack Sparrow is about to be hanged. They still have to save him! What happens after that needn’t be long. The “victory parade” should be short, sweet, and to the point. In our Pirates of the Caribbean example (and lots of other movies, plays, books, etc), all they needed was a kiss. Or a death/maiming, in the case of tragedies.
So there you have it! Next time tune in for one of my personal favorites: characters!