I’ve talked an awful lot about goals lately. I’m actually in the process of completed one of my larger quarterly goals: buying a house!
But I’m dragging you to the computer today to talk about a different kind of goal – the kind that relates to plots.
There’s no doubt that an odd cloud of mystery surrounds the definition of a plot. Most people have a rough idea of what they are and how to write them, but do you have the whole picture?
Watch this video, yo! (It’s all the same info as this post but you get to listen instead of watch :D)
We’re going to start with the basics today and work our way up to some examples, so you can see exactly what I mean.
What is so dang important about understanding what plot means? Why am I spending my time making a video about it?
Because plot affects the reader’s engagement with the story and the characters. It’s basic: something needs to happen for there to be a story at all. But what readers really love seeing is the reaction that characters have to certain events in their lives (i.e. plot points in the story).
Knowing your characters is fundamental to conveying these reactions to writers, but creating that opportunity to show characterization arises with your plot.
This is why plot is so important to understand, inside and out.
Now here’s the $5 million question: what is a plot?
A plot consists of a series of plotpoints. Woohoo! Done. Super easy right?
No, because that was the worst definition of a plot the internet has ever witnessed.
A plot consists of a series of events revolving around a character and their pursuit of a (mostly) singular goal.
Let’s break that down even further.
Girl meets boy. Girl hates boy. Girl starts to love boy. Boy is romantically blind. Girl wins boy’s heart over.
Quite simply, plot is the stuff that happens in a novel. Any story or movie can be broken down into simple sentences like above, centered on the main character(s).
Take 28 Days Later, for example. Man wakes up in hospital. Man discovers zombie apocalypse. Man meets others. Others journey to find help. Man protects others from bad others. Man and others are safe. The end.
Sorry if those were spoilers. If they were, then something’s wrong with you and you should have already watched that movie because it’s simply amazing.
Here’s another example from The Titanic:
Girl and boy get underway on ship. Girl hates life. Boy saves girl. Girl and boy fall in love. Girl’s fiancé is uber mad. Girl and boy save each other. Boy dies.
Now practice this with your own novel, or what you already have of it. Simplify everything to the point that it’s almost pathetic how simple your story is. That’s what you want. If your story doesn’t have enough of these plot points, that might indicate your story is a little too simple. If you have too many, then you might need to pare them down or save some for a later sequel.
How many plot points should you have? That depends. Quantifying creativity on a scale this small breaks into new territory – when is analyzing just too much? For now, we’ll say a general 4-7 plot points is sufficient. Each plot point should comprise a good chunk of your novel.
Take Titanic again:
|Plot Point||Minutes into movie||Percentage||Difference|
|Girl and boy get underway.||26||13.3%||4%|
|Girl hates life.||34||17.3%||3.2%|
|Boy saves girl.||40||20.5%||12.8%|
|Girl and boy fall in love.||65||33.3%||18.0%|
|Girls fiancé is uber mad.||100||51.3%||20.5%|
|Girl and boy save each other.||140||71.8%||20.5%|
Yes, I rewatched the Titanic just so I could get that data. Life is hard.
There are 195 minutes in total, so I went a little crazy and broke everything down a little too much. There seem to be some interesting trends, though. You can see that as the story progresses, more time is spent on each plot. In essence, the plot points slow down, because more “things” are happening leading up to each plot point. When Rose and Jack save each other, the following happens: Rose has to find Jack, then bust him out of the handcuffs, they race down corridors to find an escape, get locked behind a gate, have to painstakingly unlock the gate as they are submerged, run upstairs, sink momentarily with the ship before reemerging, and then find something to float on.
A lot happens!
This is where the action unfolds. You know that just from looking at the numbers.
Magic of course.
Just kidding. We know this because everyone knows how well James Cameron’s Titanic did, so obviously it kept the viewers hooked until the very end. Good action scenes have enough fuel to keep the viewer interested, where slower scenes (like those used for characterization) require more rapid changes in plot, so the viewer doesn’t get bored.
This is why it’s important to get to the point, particularly in slower scenes. Action scenes inherently slow down the play-by-play, which makes sense. If you’ve ever been in a car accident, or nearly been in one, you’ll know that the world slows down. Your senses are alert and pinging to locate any possible source of danger. It’s survival.
It also makes you realize every tiny detail around you. Action scenes do well to emulate that. They’re fast moving, but there’s also a lot of information each character is processing. These chapters tend to be longer in relation to the novel-time that has passed.
Okay. Back to the point Vivien!
So we went over what the first part of our definition means, what about the rest of it?
The boy/girl part in the above examples are kind of important. Characters are the central focus of any story, so what importance do they serve when we’re talking about plot?
They are EVERYTHING for the plot. Without the characters, the Titanic is just a ship leaving port and then sinking. But that’s not the movie we all fell in love with.
This post has been pretty relaxed so far, so let’s kick it up a notch.
Loophole incoming! 3…2…1…
Your novel can have more than one plot.
I’ll give you a second to recollect yourself.
Just kidding, you already knew that, right? Any character who is allowed to take the spotlight for any amount of time has their own plot.
In other words, if you tell your story through three different character POV, then you ultimately have three different plots.
Once again, why is this important to understand?
Because each character POV has to have purpose in the story. If you’ve gotten to the end of your first draft and feel that the scenes told through Edgar’s eyes are lacking something then look at his plotline, separate from the others. Is it strong enough on its own? Does he have a clear motivation?
When your characterization seems to be lacking, look to your plot. It’s the language that we use to tell the world exactly who our character is, superficialities aside. The reader’s reaction to the character is based on the character’s reaction to the plot points. (I’ve been waiting to say this) Because showing is better than telling. Plot points allow the reader to see who the character is, which holds more weight than summarizing it in a sentence.
Back to the Titanic – Jack seeks passion in life. See how boring that is? You’ve (most likely) seen the movie already, so we know this about Jack. We don’t know it because his opening line was “I love passion above all other things.” Lame.
We know this because, time and time again, Jack chose the route filled to the brim with passion. Did he stay below decks and wait to arrive in America? No. He got out and wandered the ship. He went places he wasn’t supposed to because he found something to be passionate about: Rose. He was daring and foolish and brave and we know all of this because of his reactions to events in the movie.
I’ll say it again: plot points are an opportunity to show your characterization instead of tell it.
The events, the characters, and the goal should be thought of as legs on a tripod. Without any one of the three, the structure (the story), can’t stand on its own.
But they’re not separate entities – they each rely on the others.
The presence of a meaningful and significant goal will strengthen your plot as a whole, and thus your novel.
Whatever goal your main character has, the importance of this goal will be established through your characterization and how your protagonist responds to your various plot points.
In summary, the plot points affects characterization, and characterization affects the significance of the story’s goal.
If this overarching goal does not have weight to it, then your reader could be seriously let down at the conclusion of your novel.
Take a fantasy story. Say the main character is a chosen one, working in a group of people to overthrow an oppressor. If your MC is going through the motions, but doesn’t seem to drive the story forward with her own goal, then the character doesn’t have much of an investment in the outcome of the story.
If your main character doesn’t have any interest in her supposed goal, then your reader certainly won’t either.
Can your character change their goal, though? Certainly! The importance of achieving each goal must be established for this to work properly. Your character can switch goals ten times, as long as enough time is spent on allowing the reader to understand that each goal actually means something to the main character (but you should probably steer clear of having this many goals for one character – your novel will be an epic before you get to number five).
Establishing the importance of a goal is the glue between your character and the story’s plot – it’s what solidifies your character’s presence in that story at all.
Every novel and movie has them. I’ll be covering subplots in a very detailed post in a few weeks, but I wanted to touch on some important things as they relate to your plot.
Subplots add depth to your novel. If your main character only has one goal throughout your novel, your reader might end up thinking your story is a little too plain.
But didn’t I just say that you should establish a solid goal for your character? Yes, but subplots are all about other characters.
Each subplot centers around one secondary character. Like the overarching plot, this secondary character has their own goal within the subplot. The trick here is to maintain the significance of the main character’s plot and goal.
Back to 28 Days Later. The main character’s goal is to find humanity. He’s lost everything and has faith in finding it again. Jim and Selena meet Hannah and her dad, Frank, who has his own subplot. His goal in that subplot is to protect his daughter and his subplot changes the course of Jim and Selena’s journey. Through that subplot, Jim is able to prove to Selena that there is humanity left in the world and restores her faith in it (another subplot altogether).
Below is a template for what you can do with your own novel. I used 28 Days Later as an example to show you how to fill it out!
|Goal:||To prove that humanity still exists.|
|Plot point 1:||Jim wakes up in the hospital.|
|Plot point 2:||Jim discovers the zombie apocalypse has happened.|
|Plot point 3:||Jim meets Selena, Hannah and Frank.|
|Plot point 4:||They all journey to find help.|
|Plot point 5:||Jim protects Selena and Hannah from some bad men.|
|Plot point 6:||Jim and the others are safe.|
|Character||Their goal||Affect on Jim|
|Subplot 1:||Selena||Selena believes that “surviving is as good as it gets.” Her goal is to simply to survive.||Jim saves her and Hannah, and Selena realizes that surviving isn’t as good as it gets.|
|Subplot 2:||Army of men||Their goal is also to survive but by having something to live for, which is why they take Selena and Hannah.||Jim proves that Selena and Hannah need each other by rescuing them from these men.|
|Subplot 3:||Hannah’s dad, Frank||To protect his daughter. He helps to prove that surviving isn’t all there is to life.||Because of him they travel to the army of men, which alters Jim’s journey. When Frank dies, Jim takes it upon himself to look after his daughter.|
Whether you’re in the outlining phase or just finished your first draft, it’s important to always be mindful of all of your novels plots. While the reader may not notice every detail about your plot, your novel will certainly benefit from your analysis and enhancement of it.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to check out my other novel-writing tips. I have quite a few of them on a wide range of topics, but if you have something specific you would like me to cover, feel free to drop a line down below 🙂
I’ll be releasing my debut novel, The Elysian Prophecy, this winter. Make sure you go check it out!
Happy writing, my friends!