I’m a writer whose characters step up to the mike and speak, so it goes without saying that the writers chicken-or-egg musing, I’m a character-first writer. So it’s no surprise that plot has always been challenging for me.
Plot is simple, right?
Mind you, it’s taken years for me to separate plot from structure as I work, but it’s true, plot is simple. It’s five easy pieces:
a character we relate to, feel for.
The trouble they run into.
All of the complications that arise as they try to extricate themselves.
The climax, where finally the worst that can happen, does.
The resolution, where all is seen to be well.
Any good juggler could keep that many balls in the air.
Plot is the same from story to story, only the details change to make it seem different. Things get harder when plot meets the pavement of structure, the way you tell this story. Those complications that build the conflict, that confuses things. We start to ask ourselves, is this spot of trouble here, is that just characterization, or is that plot too? And there is the rub. None of it is just.
In your character’s response to the complication, he must be true to the character he is, and so you have characterization through action. He must say the things generally only he would say in this situation, or he’d state the obvious in his own way. That’s characterization through dialogue. He has private concerns to be shared only with the reader, clues to what he really needs to achieve, and secrets he believes shouldn’t be shared at all.
Things get murky when you start to wonder what your themes are. It’s helpful if you have someone to point them out. Or if you now have a body of work resting in the drawer that suggests you always write about separations, or disappointments, or losses, or. . .well, you get the idea. I do think it’s helpful if a working, aka struggling, writer sticks to one word that communicates theme. Let the reviewers expand on your themes, they get paid to do that, and you can benefit from what they have to say. For yourself, one word will do, one emotionally resonant word.
Then you can look at what’s happening in your story, look directly at plot, and connect it to that word. Let’s say its disappointment. Where in the plot is the first disappointment your character encounters. What does he say, how does he react, how does anyone else guess or know how he feels? And what is their response? Go through the story, the plot line of trouble and complication, scene by scene, looking for a building series of ever greater disappointments and look at how your character’s response to them evolves, and how things work out for him (initially getting worse and worse, of course).
Plot is easy. You just have to wrestle it to the ground.