DIY MFA: What Makes a Plot?

When I read a mystery novel, I expect to find some aspects during the story. A valuable item will go missing, some puzzle must be solved, or a body will turn up. The same holds true when I read a drama, romance, or fantasy novel. Each form has its own structure, and readers of those forms expect to see elements of that framework as they read.

Last week, I defined the seven basic plot types, so I won’t bore you with it again. You can go back and read it for yourself. Each of the seven plot types has its own story arc. For example, in the Hero’s Quest, the protagonists seek a lofty goal: to defeat the empire or destroy the evil Ring. Along this journey, they encounter a series of obstacles to test their strength and character but prevail. In the Voyage & Return story, the protagonists are whisked from their lives, then journey through a series of fantastic obstacles. They eventually return home, having had experiences that change their lives.

Having a framework to hang the plot gives me an idea of where my story should be at any given point as my characters move through the action. The next step is to figure out what happens during the “obstacles” phase. That’s where the rest of the plot structure comes into play. Many stories use the three-act format—in Act I, the hero or heroes live their lives before something comes along to kick them from their comfort zone. In The Lord of the Rings the inciting incident is when the Nazgûl show up in the Shire looking for the Ring. In The Sword of Shannara, the Skull Bearers show up in Shady Vale, looking for the last descendant of Jerle Shannara. In The Wheel of Time series, agents of the Shadow arrive in Emond’s Field, looking for The Dragon Reborn. In each case, the protagonists were warned in advance of the antagonists’ arrival. They manage to escape by the barest of margins, thus ending Act I of the Hero’s Journey.

In each of these epic Hero’s Journey tales, Act II begins with the protagonists on the run, trying and often failing to elude their pursuers as the stakes continue to increase. Somewhere in the middle of all the action, a twist happens that exposes the full depth of the situation, often making it seem as though a solution is impossible. It keeps the stakes high until Act III. When the protagonists come upon a result that finally yields the outcome they have been working toward all along.

With all the guidance on structure, the next step for some writers, the “plotters,” is to create a story outline. I’m more of a “pantser,” or “discovery writer,” though. So, what to do? Well, Mary Robinette advises the discovery plotter to follow a “Yes, but … No, and …” model. What this means is that you throw the characters into an awful situation at the beginning. Then you ask, “what is the most reasonable and intelligent thing they can do to solve the problem.” As they are trying that solution, ask yourself, “Do they succeed?” If the answer is “Yes,” add a “but this happens,” then something else goes wrong. If the answer is “No,” add, “and this also happens,” escalating the problem. Using this method creates a sense of progress in that something is almost always going wrong with the characters, keeping the stakes high.

Of course, even a pantser can write a short “outline.” My idea of an “outline” has been what we were taught in Jr. High School English. But research has shown me a story outline can be nothing more than a three- to five-page summary of the entire tale. I think I can do that. Well, I’m going to try at least. Wish me luck.

Follow me on Facebook at @jjshaunauthor.

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