A recent article in Writer’s Digest on writing short stories included a succinct explanation about story plots:
- Plots, Aristotle told us, have beginnings, middles and ends, and they proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions, a reversal being a shift in a situation to its opposite, and a recognition being a change from ignorance to awareness. The basic plot of every story — regardless of length or complexity — is: A central character wants something intensely, goes after it despite opposition and, as a result of a struggle, comes to either win or lose.
– “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative” by John Dufresne
In a pea pod, there are the basics of a plot and the basis of an outline.
Because I believe it is important to craft our theme with the same skill and attention I give to the other fiction elements, I’ll add that I think it’s necessary to know what it is I want to say before I begin work on my plot.
Let’s say I want to write a book that speaks to God’s faithfulness and Man’s need to trust Him. With that direction in mind, I can craft a character who has an intense want in line with this direction.
Because I have a direction, however, I am not cornered into creating a stock character. I have choices. Do I want my character to be a person who has it all, only to lose it, a la Job? Or perhaps I should fashion a character who has it all except for the one thing he thinks will make his life work. Another approach might be to start with a character at rock bottom who is in survival mode.
There are any number of characters with differing situations who can intensely want something only to discover that their real need is to trust God.
My first major plotting decision, then, is to determine my theme, and my second is to create a character.
I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to create a rounded, believable character, not simply affix a name to a particular gendered individual of a certain age with specified hair and eye color. The more a writer can know about his character, the easier plotting is.
Your answer as the writer should depend on what kind of a person you are creating. If your character is a take-charge individual, her first actions will be very different than if she is timid and quiet. Does your character have a medical background or does the sight of blood make her squeamish? Was your character helped by a stranger at some point in her life or was she a rape victim? These and a dozen different personality issues, background experiences, and relational influences will affect what your character will choose to do first.
Once you know your character as well as you can, it’s time to put him into a setting. Yes, before your plotting can get started, you need to know where your character is. Of course, setting also must serve your theme and the character you have created.
If he is poor and desperate, don’t assume that he needs to be on skid row. What if he’s poor, desperate, and living in Beverly Hills? How did he get there and why does he want to stay? What will it take? What does it cost him if he fails and has to leave? Where will he go?
Questions, questions, questions. Ask yourself as many questions as you can imagine. When some answer intrigues you, follow that line of thought and ask another series of questions, especially if it’s concerned with why.
Within those questions you just may have found your beginning.