There are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.
A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.
Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.
The idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).
How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:
- Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
- Create an external goal for the main character that is tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal. Failure should be personally costly to the main character. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
- Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
- Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
- Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
- WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
- Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
- Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
- Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
- Leave room for your characters to surprise you.
Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.