Plot the Course


Even if you don’t work with a full outline, you still need a plot. Otherwise, you WILL get lost. Here’s my take on the basic three-act structure.

A story consists of three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Sounds easy-peasy lemon squeezy, right? Sooooooo easy. However, anyone that has written for a while knows that it’s just not that simple. Plotting is complicated and, if done incorrectly, makes even the most magnificent story terribad. Today, we’re going to investigate plotting in detail, and I’m gonna give you some steps and techniques that should make your story better.

First things first: a plot is more than just something happening in a sequence.

Far too often, the novice writer will merely string events together, decide it’s a plot, and call it a day. While for every action, there absolutely is an equal and opposite reaction, this just doesn’t cut it if you want to make an engaging story.

You need tension, and tension is not built from things just happening in sequence. That’s very formulaic and astoundingly boring. It would be best if you had drama, plot twists, and a journey for your main character to embark upon. It would help if you raised the stakes. YOU NEED TO STOP BEING A BORING BUNNY AND LEARN TO INCREASE YOUR FLUFFINESS. How do you do that? Let’s start with the basic, ancient three-act structure.

Three-act Structure

The three-act structure has been used in every great story you’ve ever read or watched.

You have the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. If these aren’t covered, then you will lose your audience. It doesn’t matter if the length of your story is 100 words or 150,000 words — if you don’t try to merge this structure into your writing, then your reader will feel let down and will not pick up another word written by you.

Why? Because this is the way stories have been told and written, instinctual, since the dawn of humanity.

Let’s look at this in a little more depth.

First Act: The Setup

This is the portion of the story that you establish the main character(s), their relationships they have with supporting characters, and you introduce the reader to your world.

In these beginning steps, you have to focus on your hook, the thing that will drive the reader forward into your story. There isn’t a standard way to do this, and you will have to develop your hook wisely. You may start in the middle of some action. Maybe you introduce your character with a horrible incident from their past. It could be as simple as adding your character and laying the groundwork for what comes next. Whatever technique you use, keep in mind that this is a make or break moment, and you must get the reader intrigued to keep plowing ahead into your crazy world.

After you’ve established these things, you need to introduce an inciting incident. This is the path your character’s journey will follow down the rest of the story and where you can set up foreboding events that will come down the line. Here you will introduce your Macguffin or your end game. Here is where you throw in the first major plot twist that will inevitably lead your character to the epic resolution that awaits for your audience. Don’t hold back here. Make it count.

There are also things you should avoid.

  • Reveal things but don’t show so much that there aren’t real surprises down the road.
  • Your style must stay consistent with the rest of the story.
  • Finally, for the sweet love of Shakespeare, don’t blast your reader in the face with an extremely graphic sex scene or gruesome, detailed dismemberment unless it’s just a shade of what is to come. You have to be careful that you don’t overwhelm the reader. Ease them in. Punch them in the face (figuratively) with the hardcore stuff later.

Second Act: The Confrontation

This portion of the story is often called “rising action.” This is where you turn up the heat, and we start seeing the consequences of the character’s actions.

So, your character thinks they have the solution to their problem, they implement it, and OMG THE ANGRY BADGERS HAVE UTTERLY OVERWHELMED OUR FORCES, AND THIS WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA.

Basically, this is where you really start to make the character work for that resolution, and you start throwing every obstacle in their way. Maybe your character is addicted to something, or everything they love gets taken from them. Put your character through their paces. Make life hard on them.

However, not only is your character making things worse for themselves, dammit, here comes the big bad to rain on their parade. Not only is your character now dealing with what they caused, but now they have to eat the shit sandwich that Dr. Iamanevilbastard is throwing at them.

At this point, your reader is definitely engaged, and the tension is strong enough to cut with a knife, and oh boy am I already excited to read this author’s next book.

The second act also includes your character’s turning point, where they come to the realization of what it’s going to take to reach the end of their destination. This is where your character has a significant change in themselves, gaining new awareness and dimension.

Last but not least, it’s time for the plot twist, where you flip the character’s world on its head and see how they cope.

Third Act: The Resolution

This is where it all comes together. All your sub-plots get tied up. The head-on head collision is going to happen here. This is where your audience stays up later than they should, biting their fingernails, and turn the pages in a fury. This is where intensity rages so hard eyeballs bleed. This is the final confrontation.

Every single subplot wraps up here, the protagonist and antagonist have their ultimate thumb wrestling war, and we see how this changes the main character and any other survivors.

Once you’re done with the climax, take it down a notch. Investigate how your character feels about what happened.

  • Has it changed them? (The answer should be yes, btw.)
  • Have all the subplots been wrapped up? (Again, if the answer isn’t yes, you’re wrong.)

Your reader is also going to be living vicariously through your character and asking themselves how your story changed them as well. It would help if you always had an ending that’s plausible based on what has come before, surprising, so it’s not cliché, and, most of all, leaves the reader satisfied.

As you can see, the process is simple.

Having said that, execution takes a lot of effort to do well and make an intriguing piece of fiction. Following these guidelines, you should see a story at the end that you wouldn’t mind reading from another author.

Just a last note, your mileage on this writing advice, or any writing advice, may vary. My opinion with any writing advice is to take what you can use and chuck the rest. I want to help you get on the path to discovering what works for you.

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