Secrets to Successful Plotting: Understanding the Basics

What do you know about the basics of storytelling? How can successful plotting enhance your story? If a book or movie has ever captivated your attention and stayed in your mind, then you understand the strength of an interesting narrative. A good story can keep you hooked, make you laugh, cry, or cheer, and keep you entertained until the very last page.

But what exactly is a plot, and how does it work? This blog post digs into the basics of storytelling with tips for making a riveting plot.

A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. This includes the setting, characters, and events that happen over the course of the story. The plot gives the story structure and creates a sense of purpose or meaning.

Types of Plot

Plots come in all sorts, each having its own exclusive structure and characteristics. Some common types of plots include:

Linear Plot

Linear plots are narratives that unfold chronologically with each event leading to the next in a straight line of progression.

Nonlinear Plot

A nonlinear plot is a narrative structure in which the order of events is not chronological, but transpires in a different order other than sequential. Incorporating complexity and multiple layers can lead to a more intricate and interesting story structure.

Episodic Plot

A narrative that is divided into episodic or chapter-like structures, each with its own particular plot arc, is an episodic plot

Parallel Plot

Two or more stories happening at the same time is a parallel plot. Each plot has distinct characters and conflicts.

In Medias Res

A plot that starts in the middle of the action – not the start -is in medias res. It creates a feeling of urgency, and it grabs the reader’s attention right away.

Twist Plot

A twist plot is a story structure which uses an unexpected turn of events, often at the conclusion of the story.

Frame Story Plot

A frame story plot is a type of narrative structure which contains a larger story with smaller stories or a series of stories within it.

Circular Plot

A circular plot is a narrative that comes back to the beginning, making it all come together.

These are just a few examples of the different plotting types. Some stories may feature a combination of these plot types or use them in unique and creative ways.

Successful Plotting Systems

There are several methods of plotting a story, and the method you choose will depend on your personal preferences and writing style. Here are some common methods of plotting:

Outlining

Outlining is a popular method of plotting that involves creating a detailed roadmap of the story, including the major plot points, characters, and settings. Many writers prefer to create a chapter-by-chapter outline before they write, while others prefer a looser, more flexible outline that allows for more spontaneity and creativity. This is a popular method for writers who prefer a detailed and structured approach to writing.

Storyboarding

Storyboarding is a visual method of plotting that involves creating a series of sketches or images that represent key scenes in the story. This can be helpful for visualizing the plot and ensuring that the story flows smoothly.

Index Cards

This is a method where you write each plot point or major event on an index card, then arrange the cards in a sequence to create the plot. This is a flexible method that allows you to move plot points around easily and experiment with different plot structures.

Scene Cards

Scene cards are a variation on index cards, in which writers create a card for each individual scene in the story, including key details such as the setting, characters involved, and major plot points.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual brainstorming technique. It involves creating a diagram or flowchart that shows the connections between different plot points, characters, and themes. This can be helpful for identifying potential plot holes and inconsistencies and ensuring that the story flows logically. This is a brilliant method for writers who prefer a more organic and fluid approach to writing.

Sketching

Some writers prefer to sketch out their story ideas in a visual format, using drawings, diagrams, and other visual aids to help them visualize the story and its key elements.

Character Sketches

Some writers prefer to create character sketches because a strong understanding of your characters can be critical to creating an interesting story. You can create your characters’ back story, motivations, and personality traits, and then build the plot around these characters.

Free Writing

A lot of writers prefer to start with a blank page and simply write whatever comes to mind, using this stream-of-consciousness writing to explore different plot ideas and story possibilities. This method can be helpful for writers who struggle with overthinking or getting stuck in the planning stages.

Successful Plotting Methods

The following are several plotting structures that writers use:

Snowflake Method

Developed by author Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method involves starting with a simple concept and then expanding it through a series of increasingly detailed steps, until it fully forms the entire story.

♦ One book that was written using the Snowflake Method is The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. In an interview, Kristin Hannah stated she used the Snowflake Method to outline and structure the story.

She started with a one-sentence summary of the story, which she gradually expanded into a paragraph, then a page, and then a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. She also used character worksheets to develop the main characters and their arcs.

Three-Act Plot Structure

The three-act structure is a popular method for outlining a story, in which the writer divides the plot into three distinct acts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.

Many successful novels have used this structure to create engaging and satisfying narratives, such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Act One: The Setup

In the setup, the reader gains an understanding of the characters, their motivations, and the stakes of the story.

♦ The setup of Gone Girl introduced us to the main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, and we learn about their marriage and their lives. We also learn that Amy has gone missing, and Nick becomes the primary suspect in her disappearance. The setup ends with the revelation that Amy was framing Nick for her murder.

Act Two: The Confrontation

The protagonist struggles to understand obstacles thrown in their way by the antagonist.

♦ In the confrontation part of the story, we see Nick’s efforts to clear his name and prove his innocence, while Amy continues to manipulate events to frame him. The tension and conflict between the characters escalate as Nick and Amy’s reveal their true selves, and we learn more about their troubled past.

Act Three: The Resolution

The resolution brings the story to a climax and resolves the conflicts that were set up in the previous acts.

♦  In this part, the truth about Amy’s disappearance is revealed, and Nick confronts her in a dramatic finale. The resolution also includes the aftermath of the events and the characters’ reactions to the new reality they find themselves in.

The Hero’s Journey

Based on the work of Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey outlines a common pattern found in myths, legends, and stories across cultures A storytelling framework that outlines the stages of a hero’s journey, from the call to adventure to the ultimate showdown.

♦ The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is a classic example of a hero’s journey. It follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins as he embarks on a quest to destroy the One-Ring and save Middle-earth.

Call to Adventure

The hero faces a challenge or opportunity that sends them on a journey.
♦ The call to adventure occurs when Gandalf the wizard arrives in the Shire and recruits Frodo to undertake a dangerous quest to destroy the One-Ring, which has the power to enslave all of Middle-earth.

Crossing the Threshold

The hero leaves their ordinary world and enters an unfamiliar one.
♦ Frodo crosses the threshold into a new world when he leaves the Shire and sets out on his journey. He must travel through dangerous lands and face many challenges as he makes his way to Mordor, where he intends to destroy the Ring.

Encountering Challenges and Allies

The hero faces challenges, meets allies, and confronts enemies on their journey.

♦ During his journey, Frodo encounters many challenges and allies, including the Fellowship of the Ring, a group of characters who join him on his quest. Together, they face many obstacles, including the treacherous terrain of Middle-earth and the constant threat of attack by Sauron’s minions.

Facing the Final Test

The hero experiences a difficult and transformative trial that tests their strength and resolve.
♦ The ultimate test occurs when Frodo and his companion Sam reach Mount Doom in Mordor. Frodo must overcome his own doubts and temptations to destroy the One-Ring, while facing attacks from Sauron’s armies.

Return Home Transformed

The hero returns to their ordinary world with newfound wisdom or gift that benefits themselves or others.
♦ After the last test, Frodo returns home transformed by his experiences. He has saved Middle-earth from the threat of the One-Ring, but he is deeply scarred by the trauma of his journey and the burden of the ring.

Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid is a five-act structure commonly used in storytelling that outlines the typical dramatic arc of a play or narrative. The pyramid has five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

♦ One classic example of a book that uses Freytag’s Pyramid is William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

Exposition

The exposition sets up the characters and setting.
♦ Romeo and Juliet, opens with exposition, introducing the two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, and their ongoing conflict in the city of Verona.

Rising Action

Rising Action introduces a complication or conflict that drives the story forward.
♦ The rising action begins with introducing the young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, who fall deeply in love despite their families’ feud. The rising action also includes the complications and obstacles that the couple must overcome, including the interference of their families and the machinations of their friends.

Climax

The Climax is the turning point where the protagonist faces their biggest challenge or decision.
♦ The climax occurs when Romeo, believing Juliet is dead, takes his own life by drinking poison. Juliet, upon discovering Romeo’s body, also takes her own life by stabbing herself with his dagger.

Falling Action

The Falling Action resolves the conflicts.

♦ The Falling Action resolves the conflicts. In our example, the falling action of the play involves the resolution of the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets, as well as the aftermath of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. The play ends with both families agreeing to put aside their differences and honour the memory of the young lovers.

Resolution

The Resolution prepares for the event where the outcome takes place.
♦ The resolution is the final resolution of the play, where the Prince of Verona and the parents of Romeo and Juliet reflect on the tragedy that has occurred and vow to work towards peace in the future.
By following Freytag’s Pyramid, Shakespeare created a powerful and emotionally charged tragedy that continues to captivate audiences today.

Save the Cat

The “Save the Cat” beat sheet is a story structure framework popularized by screenwriter Blake Snyder, and it involves 15 key beats or moments that are essential to a successful story. An example of a book that was written using the Save the Cat beat sheet is The Martian by Andy Weir.

♦ An example of a book that was written using the Save the Cat beat sheet is The Martian by Andy Weir.

Opening Image

The opening image is the first image of the setting.

♦ The first scene in The Martian shows Mark Watney, stranded on Mars, alone and presumed dead by his crewmates.

Set-Up

The set-up establishes your character’s world.

♦ We learn about Watney’s background as a botanist and astronaut, and the details of the mission that led to his isolation on Mars.

Theme Stated

Theme Stated hints at the theme of your story.

♦ Watney reflects on the fragility of human life and how we must make the best of our time, which introduces the theme.

Catalyst

The Catalyst is the inciting incident.

♦ Watney discovers he is alone on Mars and must figure out how to survive until they can rescue him.

Debate

Debate is where the hero refuses the call to adventure.

♦ Watney weighs his options and ultimately focuses on his survival by growing food on Mars.

Break into Two

In break into two, the protagonist makes an active choice.

♦ In our example, Watney sets out to grow potatoes on Mars and prepares for the long haul.

B Story

The B Story is a subplot(s).

♦ In the Martian, Watney communicates with NASA, which becomes his support system and the driving force behind his rescue.

Fun and Games

Fun and Games (aka The Promise of the Premise) is the exciting part of the adventure.

♦ In the fun and games section, a major dust storm threatens to destroy Watney’s habitat and tests his survival strategies.

Midpoint

The Midpoint is a plot twist that ups the stakes of the story.

♦ Watney has a breakthrough in his rescue plan and begins his journey to the rescue site.

Bad Guys Close In

The Bad Guys Close In as the protagonist faces more obstacles.

♦ Watney faces setbacks and new challenges as he travels across the dangerous Martian terrain.

All is Lost

All is lost as the protagonist hits rock bottom.

♦ Watney’s rescue plan fails, and everything he tries fails.

Dark Night of the Soul

In the dark night of the soul, the protagonist loses hope before finding another way.

♦ Watney loses hope and reflects on his life and the people he loves back on Earth.

Break into Three

In break into three, the protagonist tries again.

♦ Watney discovers a new way to communicate with NASA and comes up with a new rescue plan.

Finale

 In the finale, the protagonist confronts the antagonist.

♦ After Watney’s rescue, he returns to Earth, where he reflects on his experience and inspires others to continue space exploration.

Closing Image

The closing image shows how the character has changed from the start.

♦ Watney stands on a new mission to Mars, hopeful for the future.

By following the Save the Cat beat sheet, “The Martian” tells an engaging and emotional story that keeps readers rooting for Watney until the very end.

The Seven-Point Story Structure

The Seven-Point Story Structure is a method of plotting a story that involves seven key moments: An example of a book that uses the Seven-Point Story Structure is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The Hook

The Hook is the opening that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces the main character and their goals.

♦ The book Hunger Games starts with the reaping ceremony, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death among children.

Plot Point 1

Plot Point 1 shifts the story in a new direction and presents the protagonist with a major obstacle.

♦ The first plot turn occurs when Katniss enters the arena and realizes that her ally, Peeta Mellark, has allied himself with their enemies.

Pinch Point 1 

Pinch Point 1 is a reminder of the antagonist’s strength or the stakes of the story.

♦ The first pinch occurs when Katniss and Peeta face off against the Careers, the strongest and most skilled tributes, who are actively hunting them.

Midpoint 

The midpoint raises the stakes and deepens the protagonist’s conflict.

♦ The midpoint occurs when Katniss and Peeta confront the Gamemakers, who are manipulating the environment of the arena to make the Games more exciting.

Pinch Point 2

Pinch Point 2  is another reminder of the antagonist’s power or the stakes of the story.

♦ The second pinch occurs when genetically engineered beasts are released into the arena attack Katniss and Peeta.

Plot Point 2

Plot Point 2 is a last shift in the story that leads to the resolution.

♦ The second plot turn occurs with Katniss and Peeta defying the Gamemakers by threatening to commit suicide, which leads to their joint victory and sparks a rebellion in the districts against the Capitol’s cruel regime

The Resolution 

The resolution resolves the protagonist’s conflict and provides a satisfying conclusion to the story.

♦ The book ends when the Gamemakers change the rules of the Games, allowing two tributes from the same district to win if they are the last ones standing

By following the Seven-Point Story Structure, The Hunger Games creates a thrilling and emotionally resonant story that keeps readers engaged from beginning to end.

Writing by the Seat of Your Pants

This is a method where you simply start writing without a plan or outline (AKA pantsing), letting the story unfold organically as you go. This method can be exciting and freeing, but it can also lead to plot inconsistencies and pacing issues if not carefully managed.

Your Method

Ultimately, the method you choose will depend on your personal preferences and writing style. Some writers may use a combination of these methods, while others may develop their own unique method of plotting that works best for them. Whatever works for you is the method you should use.

Examples of Successful Plotting

You may have wondered how prominent authors plot their books.

Stephen King

Stephen King is well-known for his approach to writing, where he starts with a basic concept and lets the story form as he writes.

John Grisham

John Grisham, is a careful plotter who pays attention to detail. He typically starts with a basic idea or concept, then spends several months researching and developing the plot before he writes. He also creates detailed outlines and character sketches to help guide his writing.

George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin has a complex, interwoven plot and a large cast of characters. He uses a detailed system of character and plot notes to keep track of the various storylines and ensure that everything stays consistent throughout the series.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, the queen of mystery novels, was known for her careful plotting and use of clues and red herrings. She typically began with a basic concept or puzzle, then worked backwards to create a plot that would lead the reader to the solution. She also created detailed character profiles to ensure that each character’s actions and motivations were consistent with their personality and background.

10 Tips for Successful Plotting

There are lots of ways writers can develop characters. My advice…

1. Basic Idea: Begin by identifying the core idea or basic theme of your story. This could be a character, a situation, or a conflict that will serve as the foundation for your plot.

2. Genre Expectations: Different genres have different conventions and expectations with plot. Understanding the conventions of your genre can help guide your plotting decisions.

3. Create Conflict: Developing powerful characters can drive the plot forward and create tension and conflict. Strengthen your characters by including their goals, motivations, and flaws.

4. Identify your story’s central conflict. The central conflict is the driving force behind your story’s plot. Clearly defining this conflict can help you create a cohesive and compelling narrative.

5. Create an Outline: Even if you write by the seat of your pants, outline the major plot points. Using one of the outlining methods described earlier, create a list of the major events and turning points in your story

 

6. Use subplots to add depth. Consider including subplots that intersect with the main plot and contribute to the overall narrative. Subplots can add complexity and depth to your story.

7. Experiment with different structures. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different narrative structures, such as nonlinear or parallel plots. Find the structure that best suits your story or your style of writing.

8. Focus on pacing because it maintains reader engagement. Make sure your story moves at a steady pace, with a balance of action, tension, and quieter moments.

9. Allow for flexibility. While outlining is helpful, it’s important to remain flexible and open to changes as you write. Sometimes the story takes on a life of its own and deviates from your initial plan.

10. Use feedback. Share your plot with beta readers or critique partners and gather feedback. Use this feedback to refine your plot and strengthen your story.

Last Words on Successful Plotting

In summary, a plot is the backbone of any good story, providing structure, purpose, and meaning for the reader. By understanding the basic elements of the plot and incorporating conflict, tension, and resolution, you can create a compelling story that keeps your audience engaged from beginning to end.

Take Care

Linda

Feature image by cottonbro studios on Pexels.

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