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.