Top of my list is Jim Butcher’s advice in a series of livejournal posts; a must-read.


I find his description of the story arc really helpful: Beginning sets up all the dominos. When all the dominoes are set up, time to hit the Big Middle event (can also bring in a new subplot &/or new character). Dominoes then topple one after another, till you hit the climax. Also, the idea that the climax is the answer to the story question you’ve framed (When …).

Of course I like this especially because Jim Butcher writes good urban fantasy. The advice doesn’t necessarily apply to every novel type! Here’s something to think about: Has plot driven out other stories?:

“The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions”  “..would The Recognitions get published were it submitted by some eager unknown today … I rather suspect it wouldn’t get a look in. The opening is slow and focuses on the protagonist’s father. Where is the main character’s dilemma? Where is the inciting incident? Where’s the story?”  “Films won and books lost. That’s the story of the 20th century – the story of where the stories went” “Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature.” “In the end, books are better than films at putting you inside someone else’s head.”

For a bunch of good questions to ask yourself at each point, check out the “Complications Worksheet

A reminder from Plot to Punctuation about the importance of goals being not only important, but important to the protagonist — it’s not enough to save the world, there’s got to be some reason why your hero has to be the one to do it, and it’s got to matter to them. Similarly, some of the obstacles in the path have to relate to character — the hero fails for personal reasons; she learns to overcome her personal weaknesses.

Similarly, Jody Hedlund talks about three-strand conflict: external, internal, and relationship conflicts — all of which she tries to intertwine.

Elizabeth Sims has a nice article on 10-Minute Fixes to 10 Common Plot Problems. I particularly appreciated her tips for scenes that drag (don’t heap more on to try and liven it up; instead, cut stuff — make it tighter, choppier), and dull characters (give her an obsession!)

Two pieces of advice I especially liked in this article on 6 Vital Signs of a Healthy Plot: you want to “feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action”, and “If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are.”

Some tips on how to twist your plot

Ridley Pearson talks about the 3-act structure, with frequent references to Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. He says, “In starting an outline, I like to think up four or five big moments that will occur in the story. These are turning points, or darkest moments. From here, I bridge to connect these scenes, adding several smaller turning points to connect the dots. … I card these scenes and hang them on the wall.”

I found interesting the comment about “the mentor, the sage, the Obe-Wan character who’s consulted and is the catalyst for the Hero to make the commitment to the Adventure”, and about this character not only prepares the hero but also enables the author to explain the hero to the reader, and bring in backstory.  Also, how Act 2 is a “balance of action, story development and interiorizing the characters”; the place for a “sitting around the fire” moment that enables characters to reflect and tell us more about who they are; and the importance of wrapping up some of the subplots so you’re not trying to cram too much into Act 3. And how in Act 3, “What we thought was true turns out to be false. … This propels the protagonist to a final threat”; the knowledge our hero learned at the end of Act 2 is what enables him to win in the end.

Back in 2006 Cheryl Klein, an editor, gave a talk to the Missouri Writers Guild conference on “The essentials of plot”, and put it online. I was much taken with this and copied it onto my own PC, but unfortunately the url is now completely dead (although you can have a look at it using the Internet Archive. Bits I particularly noted:

  • “At the same time, if a subplot is showing us something we already know about the character, or the same thing another subplot is demonstrating as well—you should consider cutting it
  • The goal is to have every subplot contribute something unique that adds up to the main plot.
  • So what’s giving your multiple Action plots unity, then?
  • The answer is the emotional plot of your main character—how the character changes internally through what he’s experiencing in all the different parts of his life.
  • A good measure of emotional stakes: The novel should dramatize a turning point in the protagonist’s life—an event (and its consequences) without which this character would be a different person
  • Aristotle believed that this [character] flaw should drive the action, until the protagonist was forced to recognize his mistake by the enormous horrible consequences of the result—what he called the Recognition.
  • And this leads to a change in the character’s circumstances—what’s known as the Reversal
  • This is a mistake I see a lot of beginning writers make: They think “Okay, the essential piece of action-plot information has been planted here, on to something else”; or “Oh, this chapter is getting too long, I better end it here”—and so they cut off a scene without its having an emotional point”

Especially if you’re writing a historical novel, Martha Alderson’s description of how she keeps tabs on everything might be helpful.

Discussion on the nature of tension: “stories where the author uses the reader’s ignorance – no, no, let me try that again… the author mistakes or confuses reader ignorance with true tension.” Do you know what true tension is? Tension is knowing everything except how it all turns out in the end. Tension is not knowing the final outcome to the people in the story (who the author is supposed to make us care about). But only the outcome is unknown. Everything (or almost everything) else is known.

On this point, note John Gardner says, “Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another.”

From StoryFix comes the idea of a beat sheet: a list of short, bulleted descriptions about each scene and why it’s there. Can do at planning stage, or as revision. An example of a generic and a specific beat sheet.

Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell as he discusses the three act structure in connection with screenplays (but also applies to novels). Particular points:

“A good way to design the complications is to let it be a piece of the back-story that has remained hidden until Act Two.”

“YOUR ADVERSARIES MUST BE IN MOTION. Adversaries should not be standing around, waiting to be caught.”

“At the end of Act Two is the second act curtain. This is the destruction of the hero’s plan … the lowest point in the drama … If you have ever watched a movie or read a book where it starts out great and then, after about a third of the way through, becomes a “hummer” where nothing new is happening and you’re starting to get bored, this is almost always because there is no second act.”

“Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. … The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer’s expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. … When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.”

“When you have heavy exposition, look for something else to write about. Create equal amounts of attitude with exposition” “ Every scene in a book or script should do two things. FIRST: It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot. SECOND: The scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships. Try to accomplish both of these goals in each scene.”

The 5 Essential Story Ingredients. Particular points:

“the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event”

“at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.”

Five essential story ingredients:

  • Orientation: “The beginning of a story must grab the reader’s attention, orient her to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce her to a protagonist she will care about, even worry about, and emotionally invest time and attention into.”
  • Crisis: “Typically, your protagonist will have the harmony of both his external world and his internal world upset by the crisis that initiates the story. There are two primary ways to introduce a crisis into your story. Either begin the story by letting your character have what he desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying him what he desires most and then dangling it in front of him.”
  • Escalation: “There are two types of characters in every story—pebble people and putty people. If you take a pebble and throw it against a wall, it’ll bounce off the wall unchanged. But if you throw a ball of putty against a wall hard enough, it will change shape. Always in a story, your main character needs to be a putty person.” “stop thinking of plot in terms of what happens in your story. Rather, think of it as payoff for the promises you’ve made early in the story. Plot is the journey toward transformation.”
  • Discovery: “At the climax of the story, the protagonist will make a discovery that changes his life. The protagonist’s discovery must come from a choice that she makes, not simply by chance or from a Wise Answer-Giver.”
  • Change: “The character’s actions or attitude at the story’s end show us how she’s changed from the story’s inception.”

“.. stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.”