By Joe Moore
When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.
When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.
In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.
Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.
Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.
Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.
Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.
Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path were straight and level with smooth sailing, the plot would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.
When you begin working on a new story, do you develop your plot or characters first? Do you believe that a book can be primarily “plot driven” or “character driven”?