Plot! One of the key (if not the key, but we could debate about that all day) elements to a story. Every manuscript I read has a plot in the sense that Things Happen, but there's so much more to developing a plot that's compelling. Here are six things to make sure you're doing in your work:
1. Set the scene before the inciting incident.
You’ve probably heard the advice to jump right into the action of your story—and that’s sort of true. There are plenty of drafts that could stand to lose the first couple chapters, and you certainly don’t want to start with a huge backstory dump. But you also don’t want to start your story with the inciting incident (the event that sparks the main action of the plot) on page one because then the reader won’t have a clear sense of why that event matters. If you spend a couple chapters establishing the world and your MC first, the reader will feel the full weight of the inciting incident along with your characters.
So while you do want to start with action, it needs to lead towards the inciting incident rather than beginning with it. Remember that high school plot diagram that I helpfully provided in the photo for this post? That’s why there’s a small straight line before the action starts to rise.
2. The action needs to escalate towards the climax.
A plot is more than just a collection of events. Let’s go back to the plot diagram. The action needs to rise up the mountain, building towards the climax. No matter what type of conflict is present in your story, be it danger in a thriller or sexual tension in a romance, make sure that it’s increasing as the work goes along. This will heighten the reader’s investment and help keep the pages turning. It may help to actually chart the main events out on a plot diagram to make sure each one is developing from the previous one.
3. Your protagonist should drive the action, not the other way around.
Make sure your MC is acting and not just being acted upon. For example, entering the Hunger Games lottery was mandatory, but it was Katniss’s decision to take her sister’s place. That choice made both the plot and her character more intriguing. Events will happen to your MC (her boyfriend breaking up with her, for instance), but the plot should focus on your character’s actions (taking advantage of her freedom and moving across the country).
4. Give your protagonist obstacles, both internal and external.
A strong, well-balanced plot requires both internal and external conflicts. Your main character (MC) should be struggling with their own thoughts and emotions while they deal with events happening outside themselves as well.
The danger is falling too far on one side or the other. Different genres tend to have different pitfalls—a thriller, for instance, may have a great deal of external conflict but not much happening internally. Many women’s fiction manuscripts I read, on the other hand, have characters with rich interior struggles but few external difficulties. Good books have both, and the best books tie them together seamlessly—the main character is coping with an internal issue, which causes her to act in such a way that creates external conflict.
5. Raise the stakes.
Once you have these internal and external conflicts, make sure that all of it is significant. Writers often half-joke about torturing their characters. While not every book involves literal life-or-death stakes, the conflict—whatever it is—should feel dire. Does the situation feel as bad as it can possibly get to your MC? If things go wrong, would there be serious consequences? Is the conflict over something that matters deeply to your MC? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then you’re on the right path.
6. Make sure the pieces of your plot tie together.
Most of the manuscripts I read do a good job of making sure event B follows from event A in the primary plot. What sometimes goes awry, however, is the subplot. While the subplot should be distinct, it shouldn’t feel wholly disconnected from the main plot. There might be a thematic tie-in, or it could add stress on your MC that amplifies the primary plot—there's more than one way to create the link, but make sure it’s there. Additionally, watch out for a subplot that overwhelms the main plot. It needs to be integral, or it wouldn’t be in the book, but it shouldn’t take center stage.
What are some other plot pitfalls you've learned to watch out for as you write?