Plotting – What Happens Next?
“What happens next” is a question that has the power to freeze a writer’s hand over the keyboard, paralysing them with potential issues. Which route should your characters take? How would they respond to story events? Does it make sense? Does it slow the pace? Does it feel right? Creating a coherent and successful plot is a vital skill of a writer, and whether or not you’re the type to plan beforehand or work it out as you go, these factors and questions remain the same.
The plot is an essential part of the novel, it ties all aspects of the piece together and provides a structure for events. Plot allows for an organised narrative and progression of a story, covering the entire arc of the novel. It is a vehicle not only by which we tell stories, but also by how they can be understood and enjoyed. As readers we experience the novel through the medium of its plot and a good writer knows how effective it can be in engaging them with the novel.
There is a huge body of academic work on plots, deconstructions of common patterns, theories on recurring archetypes and ideas on culture and thematic constructs. I’m sure every writer has heard the conflicting views that there are only really a handful of basic plots, though no one can quite agree on the number. These theories detail broad outlines like “voyage and return”, “the man who learned better”, or simply “success story.” An awareness of these theories can be very useful, helping the writer with structure, teaching them about pacing and the format of successful stories. But be careful not to go overboard, it’s not about fitting a pattern, or being too rigid, it’s about using the patterns to enhance your work.
Still, whatever the actual premise of your story, there are some rules of plotting that are universal in fiction, and that can be a great help if you’re stuck on what to write next. The primary rule is: plots are fuelled by conflict. This might be a conflict between people, a duel of protagonist and antagonist, or it could be something more amorphous like a mountain climber facing the deadly elements. It might be an inner struggle as a character faces their demons or suffers a moral dilemma. Conflict can be the source of an entire plot, creating a challenge, an opportunity, or an unknown threat. It need not be life or death, it could be a threat to a character’s job, property, livelihood, or even just their pride.
The greater macro plot will follow a conflict to a resolution of some description, covering the overarching story, but this is also true on a scene by scene basis. Deciding what happens next can simply be a matter of working out a logical sequence of action and reaction for your characters, treating them as if they were real, thinking beings, and asking questions of everything.
For example, your hero and his allies mount a cunning raid to steal the dark lord’s secret weapon, they return home and celebrations ensure. What now? If someone poked you in the eye, what would you do? The dark lord wants his own back, so how can he retaliate? Does the hero have a girlfriend? Maybe he kidnaps the hero’s princess and holds her hostage for the return of his weapon. This escalates the conflict of the greater macro plot and increases the current tension of the story page by page. Events like this cause the plot to grow organically in a way that makes sense and develops the story, it also brings me to my next point.
Complications and obstacles are the meat of the story, the make up the bulk of the narrative allowing for the ups and downs of the novel and provide the opportunity for drama and excitement. Conflict creates a challenge, but a challenge which is easy is boring. If your character needs to climb a rope it might be athletic but not too interesting. If he needs to climb a rope hanging over the edge of a cliff that’s better. If he needs to climb a rope over a cliff while he’s being attacked by wolves, that’s exciting. The victory will be sweeter if it was hard fought, so throw a few stumbling blocks in the way of your characters. Subplots can be a goldmine of complications and new problems, a lovers’ spat in the middle of a dangerous mission, a rivalry that could derail a project, a dark secret that leaves someone open to being manipulated. In addition to providing source material a subplot will add depth and flesh out the novel.
A good plot will weave different elements together to produce obstacles from unexpected locations. That prince from earlier, of course he wants to give the weapon back and rescue his princess, but from out of the woodwork comes a government advisor who persuades the king of the land that it’s a foolish trade and the hero is forbidden to proceed. These complications cause a reaction in the story, you could have the hero make a fake copy to trade, or you could have him steal the real thing and race to save the princess, fending off his former friends in the process. Either option adds something to the story.
A plot has a format that will invariably draw the story towards the climax, the dramatic moment where the conflict is resolved. Knowing this the writer will want to build up tension before the final page and direct the narrative accordingly. There are a number of recognised techniques to help achieve this through your plot, one of the most common methods is to introduce a time limit to the story. The knowledge of an impending deadline will influence both the characters and the reader as the level of tension ramps up, and joined with obstacles that further slow the characters, stealing time they can’t afford, makes for a great way to build up the excitement and engage the reader.
Another way to develop the plot is to up the stakes, the next scene should always represent some kind of escalation, especially in the final run up. The more the characters have on the line, the more invested and desperate they are to succeed, and the more the reader will care. The climax is also the time when the most things go wrong and the bloodiest battles take place, your ending scenes should be racking up the body counts and throwing spanners in the works at the last minute, all leading to those immortal words from the hero, “Time for plan B.”
How your plot unfolds is greatly affected by the structure of your novel, and you may have more options than simple linear progression of a single narrative. Many authors make use of counter plotting where sections of the story are split into diverging paths. An example is when the fellowship brakes up in The Lord of the Rings, with smaller groups having their own narrative arcs within the greater story, drawing together for the finale. A writer may bounce between different plot stands and reveal each story in increments. This can provide a number of benefits. It can allow the writer to cut out the less interesting sections of a journey, aid them in developing a deeper plot, provide the opportunity to create cliff hangers, and when combined together it serves to raise the cumulative level of excitement as all the separate strands converge for the climax of the novel bringing with it the tension of several concurrent build-ups.
Some novels go further than this as in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire with its multiple PoV characters and complex interwoven storyline. This style does provide a lot of opportunity for narrative scope and in showing the perspective from different sides, but it’s not without risks.
There are many perils in creating the plot of a novel, the challenge of ensuring everything makes sense, that it all fits together, and most importantly, that it’s interesting to read. The more complex and interwoven the narrative the more likely there are to be issues. Try something too complicated, with too many characters or events and you can quickly find the story twisted into knots. Yet equally a story that’s too simple may not have enough momentum to carry it through successfully or make for bland reading. Writers may wall themselves into a corner or find themselves stuck for the next event to move the narrative along.
If you are struggling with your plot, it can often be beneficial to pause, take a step back and look at the work as a whole. Think carefully about the direction of your story, about where your characters are right now and what options are available, and avoid the temptation to try some random diversion to get the story moving. In a well-constructed plot every line serves a greater purpose. If you have multiple strands that aren’t going anywhere, perhaps they should meet up. If nothing’s happening, create a problem to be solved. Make things worse and let the characters react. As a rule, if there’s no struggle, there’s no story.
Working on your plot can be the most complicated part of the novel, but it can also be the most rewarding. Crafting the twists and turns of your story, deciding how your characters will react and scripting the drama are a core part of being a writer. Like all aspects of the craft it requires care and thought, but there are limitless choices in how to proceed. As always, what happens next is up to you.