Great page-turning stories live or die by their plots
To keep me turning the pages of your book, you need a plot that grabs me by the throat and keeps me with you to the end.
So, What Is the Plot of a Story? Plot is the sequence of events that makes up your story. It’s what compels your reader to either keep turning pages or set your book aside. Think of Plot as the engine of your novel. A successful story answers two questions:
1. What happens?
2. What does it mean?
What happens is your Plot. What it means is your Theme.
For example, my novel Riven has two lead characters—Brady Wayne Darby (a no-account loser from a broken home) and Thomas Carey (a struggling small church pastor).
Their lives initially play out in separate settings, but eventually their stories intersect. My Theme ties the stories together: The extent of forgiveness for even the most heinous crime.
Can Thomas forgive those who’ve treated him so shabbily that his own daughter has abandoned her faith?
Can Brady Darby be forgiven for the ultimate mortal sin?
Ideally your readers think for days about your theme. They may remember the plot, but they should chew on the theme.
While stories seem limitless, most plots fall into these categories:
1. Adventure: A person goes to new places, tries new things, and faces myriad obstacles. Examples: Harry Potter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Chronicles of Narnia, Gulliver’s Travels, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
2. Change: A person undergoes a dramatic transformation. Examples: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Beauty and the Beast, A Little Princess, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings.
3. Romance: Jealousy and misunderstandings threaten lovers’ happiness. Examples: Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, The Fault in Our Stars, The Notebook, Wuthering Heights, Water for Elephants, Redeeming Love.
4. Mistake: An innocent person caught in a situation he doesn’t understand must overcome foes and dodge dangers he never expected. Examples: Indiana Jones, Finding Nemo, The Colour Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Left Behind.
5. Lure: A person must decide whether to give in to temptation, revenge, rage, or some other passion. He grows from discovering things about himself. Examples: The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Riven, A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, The Hobbit, MacBeth, The Pearl, Oliver Twist, The Secret Life of Bees, Animal Farm.
6. Race: Characters chase wealth or fame but must overcome others to succeed. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Treasure Island, Chariots of Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Devil Wears Prada.
7. Gift: An ordinary person sacrifices to aid someone else. The lead may not be aware of his own heroism until he rises to the occasion. Examples: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, The Green Mile, Charlotte’s Web, Schindler’s List.
Regardless which basic plot you choose, your goal should be to grab your reader by the throat from the get-go and never let go.
Ask yourself two questions: Is your story idea weighty enough to warrant 75,000 to 100,000 words; Is it powerful enough to hold the reader to the end?
Discovering novelist Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction) was the best thing that ever happened to my career. I immersed myself in this book in the 1980s, and my writing has never been the same. It has informed every novel I’ve written since, and several have sold in the tens of millions.
If, like me, you’re not an Outliner but write by the seat of your pants (we call ourselves Pantsers), don’t panic—this is just a basic structure, not an outline. But, even we Pantsers need a basic idea where we’re headed.
Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
The terrible trouble depends on your genre, but, in short, it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character. For a thriller it might be a life or death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman must decide between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice is revealed a disaster.
Just remember, this trouble must bear stakes high enough to carry the entire novel.
One caveat: whatever the dilemma, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character. The trouble is seen in an entirely different light once a reader is invested in the character.
2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only worse…
Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist.
Every complication must be logical (not the result of coincidence), and things must grow progressively worse.
3. …until the situation appears hopeless.
Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.
Make your predicament so hopeless that it forces your lead to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
4. Finally, your hero learns to succeed against all odds.
Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking action. Give them a finish that rivets them to the very last word.
Beginning with chapter one, page one, your singular mission is to make every word count.
Gone are the days when a reader enjoyed curling up with a book and spending the first hour or two by immersing herself in the beauty of the setting and culture. These are important, certainly, and must be woven into the narrative as seasoning.
But today’s readers have nanosecond attention spans. By the end of the first page, they should be hooked.
One final piece of advice: avoid main characters who can do no wrong. Heroes should be fundamentally likable, but we need to see their struggle, too. They shouldn’t be wimps or cowards, but they must have imperfections. Character arc is crucial to a successful plot.
Villains must be three-dimensional, too. Yes, even bad guys need a soft side, a weak spot, maybe even a modicum of generosity. And their evil has to have some genuine motivation. No one is simply mean for no reason.
Adding dimension to your characters gives dimension to your plot.
As novelists, you and I have one job: to invent a story for readers that delivers a satisfying experience. Readers love to be educated and entertained, but they never forget what moves them.
Stephen King advises, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.” But you’ll find that a whole lot easier if you take the time to develop the plot of your story using the powerful tools above.
•I get a mail weekly from Jerry Jenkins, author of Left Behind, as my mentor. I can’t pretend I follow him faithfully, but if you want to manipulate readers– write bestsellers– you should pay close attention.