How to write and develop the plot of a story

So, you’ve written that stellar opening line putting, “Call me Ishmael,” (Moby Dick) to shame. You’ve also introduced your character – a sturdy guy with those brooding eyes and you have hinted at a past that you want your reader to unravel later on and say, “Wow!” Right there, you have all the right intentions and a few paragraphs of great writing. Your exposition* is done. So what happens next and how are you going to, dear writer, write about all those hardships you’ve carefully crafted (from imagination and thin air) for your brooding hero? How are you going to resolve those issues for him? That’s where the plot of a story comes in.

A story plot is pretty much ALL the events and the sequence of their occurrence that put the story together. So, if your brooding hero has to figure out who put him in prison, killed his family and bring them to justice and in the process fall in love with the hot lady avenging the death of her father…ah, that would be what one could call a plot skeleton (an outline, if you please) but for the entire story to be both engaging and credible you need to consider the following story plotting basics during the writing process:

5 Questions to ask while writing & developing the plot of a story

1. Is something happening?

Would you like a story about a princess who married the love of her life and lived happily ever after? You might. But, what if that’s the whole story? Wouldn’t you ask the author, “And your point is?

So, while it’s important to build the right atmosphere, it’s imperative to get to the point and tell your readers what’s happening within the plot of your story. So you’ve introduced your hero. You describe him. You write about him doing pushups and kickboxing in a Tihar jail cell. You describe the cell. You describe his rock-pounding or basket-weaving prisoner routine. You throw in a cellmate. That guy likes to talk. Your guy doesn’t.

It’s fine until now.

But, you need to give your readers something. You can’t go on and on about prison life and meaningless banter if it doesn’t lead to something.

You have some choices here – you could reveal a part of the hero’s past. Why is he in prison? Who did what to him? So what does he want? These are events they propel the story forward by revealing things about his life and his motivations. Think of that medical drama series you like to watch on Star World – the pretty lady doc is walking along sans white-coat hoping to get to a date on time when her pages beeps and she has to get to the ER only to find a difficult, difficult case. Think rising action*

2. When is the story happening?

In his book, “Elements of Writing Craft,” Robert Olmstead writes, “A story makes an opening in time.” So, let’s say your opening scene is about your basket-weaving hero sitting in Tihar jail and the jailors outside his cell celebrate a second-term NDA victory. You are “showing” the time here. Your reader would figure out that something is happening around May 2009.

(An aside: It’s good (I won’t say always) to introduce time this way, through a public event, rather than saying, “On one hot summer’s day in May 2009).

So your brooding hero is planning an escape? Great! Let’s assume you’ve worked out a convenient logistics for him to break-out of security intensive Tihar aka Charles Sobaraj style. Now when does this happen? You need to fill your reader in – two years after imprisonment? How long did he plan it? So how old is he now? You need not answer these questions immediately but you have to at some point.

There is another important “when” question. When will you introduce his future lady love and other characters? Now when he is sitting in jail, or later when he is out plotting his revenge?

You could write about events happening in a chronological fashion (linear) or in a non-linear fashion – where you take the reader time-travelling, flipping back and forth from flash-backs to current day events or even the future –
He never knew at that time that he was walking to his death.” Ouch.

An entire novel may be events that occurred during one day or even over years.

3. What does it lead to later on in the story?

At each point in time during the writing process you need to answer the question, “so what happens next?” Okay, your hero escaped on that day, at that time. A massive man-hunt follows, posters are plastered all over the capital city, villains in the gambling den are scratching their goatees wondering what to do and our men meets his lady love, she is after the same guys – yeah, all that.

At this point you have another choice to make: how much are you going to reveal? You do want to bring in the element of suspense right? When I was reading the concluding book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series – I broke my head wondering why the hero paid a Grade IV employee to keep increasing the proximity of a mobile phone as near as possible to a heavily guarded murder-suspect’s hospital room.

The delightful answer came many many pages later – so that she could access the internet via the Bluetooth enabled device (a hand-held PDA was smuggled in). This simple information was so cleverly concealed within the plot of the story and so purposefully revealed later on that it was a wondrous read.

Reveal enough to tease the reader. Conceal what is necessary to retain suspense. Only you can make that choice.

4. How will the big big problem be confronted in the story?

Think climax.* Your hero is executing his killer idea! The baddies have been cornered and well he has them on camera live for the world to see.

At this point you should have resolved most loose ends. This is what is considered to be the point at which tension and drama is maximum and the point when a solution to all the problems are in the offing.

Cinderalla is going to try on the glass shoe, the prince is going to kiss Snow White, Beauty is about to kiss the Beast. And with that comes a solution and the falling action* – the shoe fits, Snow White wakes up, Beast is a handsome price, the establishment of your hero’s innocence – the solution.

5. How will the story end?

So, what happens next? Is it happily ever after or life goes on after justice? Whichever path you choose you need to bring about a credible conclusion. The denouement* has to be satisfying for a reader. How was it big problem resolved? Remember, this is the final resolution, the time when Sherlock Holmes sits with Dr. Watson after Vincent Spaulding has been carted off to prison, explaining why The Red-Headed League existed at all.

*Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action & Denouement are elements of a Plot according to acclaimed German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag and is often used academically to explain plotting.

While the other terminologies are self-explanatory, exposition refers to character introductions, who’s who, how they interact with each other, any background information and the main theme of the novel.

This short introductory post just scrapes the basics of developing the plot of a story. In subsequent posts, we get you up to speed on the advanced nuances. Stay with us.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

10 thoughts on “How to write and develop the plot of a story”

  1. Lavanya Post Author

    @Karanvir, then you have come to the right place. Please be sure to bookmark our site and visit us often. We are in the process of building some exciting content for our site.

  2. Ramiah Ariya

    Lavanya, Thanks for writing these articles. I came here through Sameer’s website which I read regularly. I hope this grows into a good Indian writers community.
    Have you read “Becoming a writer” by Dorothea Brande? It is a very inspiring, and at the same time practical book on the art of creative writing. She was a teacher of that subject and decided to take a slightly different approach to these subjects.
    I found that book appealing, because it stepped away from the territory of defining “Plot” and “Setting” for aspiring writers. In reality,creative writing was offered as additional credits or adjunct courses in several universities; and therefore had to start teaching this art the same way you would, say, take a Drawing class. I am not saying that writing cannot be taught etc – nothing so arrogant. I am just saying the goals of such courses and their focus seems different from a practical writers dilemma.
    This is why I found Sameer’s website very useful, although it deals with a different aspect (trade) of writing.
    For example, you read a lot. You have a basic understanding of plot, structure etc. Now, you do come by a great idea. I think you would be able develop it into a plot if you had read a lot, and attempted writing of any form (creative or otherwise).
    I think the big question is how to channelize the creative process. You need language skills to begin with – that is a given. If you have language skills, then how do you go about developing a plot?
    The answer, in my humble opinion, does NOT lie in understanding Three Act structure or Five Stages. Usually they fall in place, automatically.
    The answer is that it is a process of thinking – not writing. Unless we are writing interminable monologues, most plot development happens in the head. The entire “writing” process, then, is managing this correctly.
    In my case, I do not do outlines. I think 50% of writers do extensive outlining. 50% don’t.
    Instead, I try to create “scope”. For me scope is a series of concepts about the story’s time, period and so on that helps me maneuver around while writing. Let me give you an example – a murder story set in 1930s India provides “scope” because you can imagine the political and social tensions at that time. They provide scope for you to grasp and see if they work out somewhere in your imagination.
    Similarly, a big advice, as you know, is to create character arcs. Many of our movies fail to touch us because there are hardly any characters that change. A character arc exists, as far as far I am concerned, to help device plot points and induce the imagination.
    Thus the whole writing process for me happens with long walks where I work upto a certain point in the plot; feel comfortable; and then sit and write. The character arcs and conflicts help me take the plot along. The writing is helped by scope.
    Since a lot of this process is helped by the subconscious, and it is difficult to think “creative” by order, I adopt several techniques. THIS is what I wish someone had taught me.
    For example, writing daily, which is what every writer advices, is impossible when you are spending a lot of time plotting – because the plotting is the point. Different people approach this differently.
    Good sense in a plot is more important than great paragraphs. Usually, in “commercial” books, the plot helps everything else fall into place.
    Long way of saying that I am happy talking about this. Again, wishing this can be come a good community.

  3. Lavanya Post Author

    Ramiah,
    Thank you so much for reading our posts and thank you for your detailed opinion. It is really valuable – readers and writers reaching out to us with their thoughts.

    To begin with, I read Dorothea Brande’s, “Becoming a Writer,” quite by accident. I was actually looking for John Gardner’s, “Art of Fiction” and in the copy I possess of Brande’s book, Gardner has written the foreword.
    You are absolutely right in saying that it is a practical book and yes, inspiring too. However, the book has mostly got to do with what it takes to be a writer; she talks about cultivating a writer’s temperament, what writers are like, writing on schedule and how you can critically assess yourself. This beautiful book is much about the writing process.

    I’d like to believe that the writing process and the writing craft are twins – they are different entities (let’s personify!) but very similar. The process is all what you outline in your comment – thinking, mulling over, ideating, and taking long walks…

    In my humble opinion, I believe that the writing process is getting your mental faculties ready. The writing craft is sitting down on the factory floor and hammering away. And, what tools do you have? Language? Yes. What are you building? Story, Plot, Character. There’s more. That’s what Booksoarus is about. We aim to celebrate the writing craft, showcase nuances of the craft, and talk about technique, marvel at technique of some of the writerly-greats. Sure, we’ll be talking about the process too.

    You use a very interesting terminology: character arcs. That’s an element of the craft. I hope you will agree. And, when you take those long walks the character will form in your head. That’s the process.

    The writing process is unique to each individual. You do not do outlines and that works for you. Some others do outlines. Some others don’t. I do character arcs. A lot of people don’t and mostly because, as you rightly point out – it’s all in the head.

    I’d like to think of writing as both art and craft. In all earnest I believe that, the “while-you-are- writing” bit is the craft and the “after- you- are-done-and-looking-at-your-own-creation- bit” is the art. Your creation is art.

    You must read our interview of the programme leader of Asia’s first MFA in Creative Writing. She talks about the whole “teaching to write” concept. It’s interesting and incisive.

    Thank you again for your comment. I enjoyed reading it. Hope to see you around at Booksoarus and looking forward to more of your valuable opinions!

    -Lavanya

  4. Genevieve

    Dear Lavanya,

    I really appreciate what you have to say here–if I remember correctly, Dorothea Brande writes about the two selves, the wishful self and was it…the critical self? I can’t remember exactly, but I think your ‘twins’ analogy is quite helpful…There is that part of us that works it all out while ruminating–whether it be lying on the living room floor or walking alone–and the part of us that at some point must confront what we actually have created and what we envision it becoming. And just like painters and musicians don’t need technique to make their stunning contributions to art, it does help if they know what has been done, and how so/by what methods. I sometimes surprise myself by liking craft more than I’d like to admit! 😉 Anyhow, thanks again.

  5. Mayank

    Hi Lavanya,

    One genuine request. Your english standards are too high. Can you please write in easy language just like Sameer
    Sorry but if you can, that would be boon to many aspiring authors.

    Thanks

  6. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Mayank,

    Thank you for your suggestion! I write in a manner that comes naturally to me.
    As a writer, we are often told that one shouldn’t copy another’s style. And, it is honestly tough to write as well as Sameer:-) Having said that, I’ll make a genuine effort to keep it simple and functional.
    Hope to see you here more often.

    – Lavanya

  7. Neelabh Pratap Singh

    Hi Lavanya,

    I have accidentally but fortunately landed upon Booksoarus a few days back. I have gone through some of your articles and noted one thing that you always stick to the basics which is really helpful for the budding writers. However, I focus on Dont’s more compared to Do’s because I read somewhere, ‘There are 3 rules to write. Unfortunately no one knows what they are’.

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