“I start a book (…) knowing just two things: the basic situation and that the story will create its own patterns naturally and organically if I follow it fairly (…) and by fairly I mean never forcing characters to do things they wouldn’t do in real life.” (Stephen King)
Some novels are character-driven: the author develops a protagonist and other secondary and tertiary characters, and allows them to guide the storyline. These authors never know in advance how their novel will end, which can be rather … exciting, to say the least. (This is how I write, so I pretty much know whereof I speak. Excitement is an understatement.)
What’s in a plot?
Other novels are plot-driven, and while there are obviously variations on a theme, there are certain elements that enable a plot to move forward. Here’s one possible progression through a plot-driven novel:
- state an obvious problem
- discover a hidden need for the protagonist
- create an inciting situation
- introduce complications
- cause characters to lose hope
- enable the protagonist to reach a decision
- bring the situation to a resolution.
That’s all very stark, of course, and writing is not usually that tidy. But essentially your protagonist needs to want something (solving a problem is another way of saying that) and the reader needs to have a sense of why the character wants it. In my novel Asylum, Martine (my protagonist) needs to solve a problem: women have been murdered. The “why” is clear: so the killer might be caught and stop killing. A secondary, more profound “why” develops as she learns about the dead women and the secrets that linked them: now she’s become a crusader for a much bigger justice, and the stakes have been raised for the reader.
The story arc
Plots traditionally — and for good reason — follow what’s known as a “story arc.” There’s a reason why it’s called an arc: the plot begins at point A, moves more and more quickly to the top of the arc at Point B, and then a dénouement moves it into some sort of resolution at Point C. The building up of tension, suspense, and conflict, which occurs between A and B, is really the main focus of the arc; once resolution comes, it the story should end. No one really wants to know what happens after the protagonists ride off together into the sunset: happy characters and situations make for dull reading.
The story arc doesn’t just fall down into your lap from the heavens: it’s built, one step at a time, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Even if you’re more focused on the characters and less on the plot, you still need to have a sense of what Point C will look like. That can change, and often does; but you need to at least have something at which to aim.
Merging plot development with character development
Just as you create a story arc, you must also create character arcs. If your protagonist is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning, then they’ve failed to be interesting, evolving… human. You’re not the same person at the end of the book you were when you started writing it, and neither is your character. Allow them to grow, to change, to make mistakes, to experience joy… all the things that make them into a real person who can then participate fully in the story arc.
Keep it moving
Whatever your plot, it needs to catch and hold the reader’s interest, which won’t happen unless what is happening now is more interesting than what happened a few pages back. This is known in fiction as forward momentum, and it’s your first, middle, and last responsibility. What you don’t ever want is to give your reader an excuse to close the book!
Here’s the thing: No plot will work if it isn’t compelling, and no character will work unless the reader can’t wait to see what happens to them next. Take care of both and you have the makings of a great novel.
Jeannette de Beauvoir works with authors on characters development, story arcs, and more through online courses and individual editing/coaching/ghostwriting. More at her website.