How to build a plot?
The secret of a well-executed plot is based on 8 basic elements. So before you start writing your novel, you need to determine these eight elements. This will be the only guarantee of offering a well-crafted plot to your readers.
What is more surprising is that these choices and the resulting plan can be established in less than an hour …
So let’s get started and detail each of these 8 elements.
a/ If you are already working on your novel, read the rest of this article and jot down ideas as you go. See if each element is found in your story.
You can take your story and revisit it based on this Precis technique. It will allow you either to reinforce your intrigue or to find new avenues to exploit by incorporating one of the elements that you would have neglected.
At the end, I’ll show how to use your choices to create the outline for your novel.
b/ If you don’t have an idea for a novel yet, use your imagination. And if the idea that comes to you is not very good, it does not matter. Consider this approach as an exercise, you will have plenty of time to use this technique later.
1/ The purpose of the story
The first element to consider in your plot is the purpose of your story. In short, the plot of a story is a series of events that always revolve around a problem to be solved or an objective to be achieved.
The questions to ask will therefore be:
- What goal does my character want to achieve?
- What problem does he want to solve?
And these questions will have to be answered keeping in mind that this goal also affects the other characters in the story and your whole story.
Let’s take an example, let’s say that we want to write the story of a young 38-year-old executive who has always set aside her private life to focus on her career and who now regrets her choice because she finds herself alone.
The purpose of our story could be for example
…May she find true love before it’s too late.
But there are plenty of other possibilities that involve other characters.
For example, we could give our protagonist…
… A mother who would like to see her happier.
… Friends and co-workers who come to terms with their celibacy and loneliness
… A jealous ex-boyfriend who tries to sabotage her love life.
…an elderly, lonely aunt who wouldn’t want the protagonist to make the same mistake she did.
… A happy young family that would give her an example of what she’s been missing.
… A divorced and fiercely anti-marriage friend.
In other words, having defined a goal for the story, we will build a world around our protagonist where all the perspectives would come to disturb his goal.
This is why the choice of the goal of the story is the most important. Because he is the first to intervene in the construction of the plan.
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2/ The consequence of the story
Once you have the purpose of the story, the next step is to ask yourself:
What disaster would occur if the goal was not achieved?
Or if the problem was not solved?
The answer to these questions constitutes the consequence of history.
The consequence is the negative situation that would result if the goal is not achieved. And this risk alone justifies the effort required to reach the goal.
The combination of purpose and consequence creates the main dramatic tension in your plot. Basically, it’s the carrot and stick idea that will make the plot meaningful.
In some stories, the protagonist decides one day to solve a problem or achieve a goal. This goal comes into its own when he discovers what terrible consequence will occur if he fails.
In other stories, the protagonist finds the motivation to act because he is threatened by a terrible event. He must therefore find a way to avoid it.
In the case of our young manager, we have already invented a possible consequence: for example that she ends up like her unmarried aunt.
We could make this consequence more dramatic. For example, her sick aunt dies alone because she has no close family to take care of her.
Do : Write a list of possible consequences to your story goal. Choose the one that will do the best counterweight to the goal you have chosen.
The third element of your plot describes what must be accomplished to achieve your goal. You can imagine a list of various conditions that must be met in order to achieve the goal that the protagonist has set for himself. The conditions create suspense in the mind of the reader as he hopes for the success of the protagonist.
What conditions can we find in our example?
Well, if our protagonist’s goal is to find true love, maybe she’ll be forced to join a singles club or sign up for a dating site.
Maybe she will need to take time off or a vacation.
Do : Ask yourself what event(s) could help achieve the purpose of your story. Imagine a host of possibilities
Choose one to put in your plan. (But put aside all the other ideas, they can still be used!).
Warnings are the counterpart of conditions. While conditions move the story forward toward the accomplishment of the goal, warnings are the events that push toward consequence and therefore failure.
For our story, what would be the warnings that one could submit:
– the company loses one of its key employees to another, more family-friendly company.
– the protagonist goes through a bad experience that leads her to believe that she will never be able to meet the man of her life
– the protagonist meets a woman in a singles club who tells her that all good men her age are already married.
– one of the protagonist’s friends is going through a difficult divorce, which shows the protagonist that marriage cannot be the source of the happiness she hopes for.
While the purpose of the story and the consequences create the dramatic tension, the conditions and the warnings immerse the reader in an emotional tension which oscillates between the hope of succeeding and the fear of failure.
At times, we will have the impression that the protagonist is progressing. In others nothing is going right. If you structure the warnings well, your readers will want to turn the pages to find out what happens next.
Our example could go like this:
“A young, 38-year-old, single executive has put her private life on hold to succeed in her professional career. But one day, her unmarried aunt dies alone (the consequence). This news acts as a trigger in the head of the young woman. She decides that she must have a family before she meets the same ending (goal). She registers on a dating site and very quickly gets appointments (conditions)). But each appointment ends in fiasco (warnings).
As you can see, only four elements out of the 8 will have been enough to create a plan and suspense… Admittedly, these are the four most important.
Notice also that these elements balance each other in pairs. This is one of the important points for creating tension and momentum in your shot.
Do : Write down a few events that could serve as warning signs in your story.
For now, just choose one. And write your plan like the short summary written for our example that takes into account the four elements.
5 / costs
To increase the dramatic tension of your story, your protagonist must suffer or agree to make sacrifices to achieve his goal and face the warnings. These sacrifices are called the costs
Some classic cost examples:
– the tough detective who gets beaten up at some point in his investigation,
– the heroic tales in which the injured hero suffers or is forced to give up what is dear to him to achieve his goal.
Costs can take on many aspects. The protagonists can be asked to give up their pride, self-respect, money, security, their ideas, the life of a friend, or anything else they hold dear. The harder the costs are to face, the more the reader will feel that the protagonist deserves to achieve his goal.
In the case of our story, perhaps our young executive will have to give up an important promotion which would force her to travel too much, which would leave her no chance of meeting a man and starting a family. But until then, she had staked everything on her professional career.
To do : Make a list of costs your protagonist might be forced to endure, face, give up…to achieve their goal or solve their problem
Again, just choose one idea (for now) to include in your outline.
The element that balances costs in your plot is the dividends. They are the reward that the characters receive during the path that leads them to their goal.
Unlike conditions, dividends are not necessary to achieve the goal. They may even be unrelated to him. But they wouldn’t exist if the characters hadn’t sought to solve their problem or achieve their goal.
Let’s go back to our young executive, maybe his desire to meet the great love will give him the idea to create a business, a marriage agency, for example, which will offer him a happier career than his, for example.
Or maybe looking for love will force her to open up more and be more compassionate towards her colleagues and therefore more endearing in their eyes.
Do : Write down possible ways to reward your characters.
Choose the one that seems most appropriate to your plan. And advance the last two elements.
Prerequisites are the events that must occur for the Conditions to occur. They are an extra layer of challenges in your outline and in the plot.
When the conditions and prerequisites are met, the reader feels the protagonist is gradually approaching his goal or about to solve his problem.
For our example, to meet a man, the young woman joined a dating club. She quickly got appointments. And to put the odds on your side, you must renew your wardrobe with less business-like outfits (prerequisite).
Do: Take a look at the condition you have chosen and make a list of possible prerequisites that must be met to fulfill the condition.
The last element to balance your plot and establish your plan: the prerequisites. This is a lighter version of warnings. Prerequisites are small obstacles dotted throughout the plot. These are conditions imposed by the character(s)
The classic example Pride and Prejudice, the novel by Jane Austen. Elizabeth Bennett’s pursuit of happiness is further complicated by the fact that in his will, her grandfather had ordered that only men inherit the family property. So when their father died, Elizabeth and her sisters would be penniless unless they found good husbands first.
There are many possible ways to prevent the characters from achieving their goal.
In the case of our young executive, one can imagine that the employer forces the executives to meet every Saturday morning at 7am. This rule is difficult to follow for our young executive because all the appointments she gets with her suitors are on Friday evenings and therefore she always comes home late. On Saturdays it’s hard for her to show up fresh and focused at her boss’s meeting.
Do: What you have left to do is make a list of all the possible prerequisites your character might meet.
Choose the one you like the most.
How to organize your plan?
Once you’ve chosen your eight elements, the next step is to create a plot summary. As long as all eight elements are present, the order does not matter. In fact, most items can be repeated or included in multiple tracks.
This is how we could bring together all eight elements for our story.
A 38-year-old single executive has put her private life on hold to succeed in her professional career. But one day, her aunt, single and without a family to take care of her, dies alone ( the consequence ). This news acts as a trigger. The young woman then decides to find a man and start a family before experiencing the same fate ( the goal ). She therefore renews her new wardrobe that is too marked as a businesswoman and registers with a marriage agency ( prerequisite ). Her boss offers her a promotion that would require her to travel, but she turns it down to meet a few suitors ( Costs ). She manages to get contacts and appointments very quickly ( conditions). But each is a fiasco ( warnings ). On top of that, as the agency gives her appointments on Friday evenings ( the prerequisites ), she ends up arriving tired and late for the meetings imposed on all managers by her boss on Saturday mornings at seven o’clock. Along the way, however, she begins to realize how demanding her boss is, especially of co-workers with families or social lives outside of work. She begins to have compassion for some of them which leads to a rapprochement with them ( dividends ).
There you go… you see in a few lines the plan is established and the story, ready to be written.
It’s a bit complex, I agree, but well mastered, these eight elements are the bases of all the intrigues. Do several exercises and you will quickly adopt this American technique.
Finally, you have probably noticed that our story is missing an ending! I assure you, I have not forgotten it, but I will tell you about it in a future article.