A plot seems like a straightforward thing, even when that plot is complex. A leads to B which leads to C and so on. It’s kind of like driving a car down a road with no forks. The road may meander a little, but you don’t really get lost.
But that analogy only applies to a finished plot. Developing a plot is another story entirely. It’s more like climbing a mountain that changes constantly. You lose your footing and suddenly you’re back where you started and the path ahead has altered. Creating the entire arc of your story takes commitment and just a little bit of luck.
Starting the Arc of Your Plot
I, like many writers, have the most difficulty with that opening chapter, the very beginning of my plot, the very base of the mountain. It can be difficult to know exactly where to begin. You need to grab your readers, get them interested so they’ll keep reading, but without confusing them so much that they put the book down. Picking out your first plot point can be a frustrating experience.
There are many ways to engage the reader. You can (and usually should) start with some piece of action. This action could be physical, but it also could be an emotional, mental, or even spiritual conflict. You have to figure out where your story really beings so you can tell it well.
One problem that arises is that sometimes you really feel that you need to start your story in a spot that is almost devoid of action. This happens to me with distressing frequency. I often get the urge to start a story with exposition or just plain character development, which is contrary to what most authors do.
There are many ways to compensate for this little problem. My favorite is to simply add a prologue. This way, I can add some action that is relevant to the story without interrupting the arc of the story. This doesn’t work for every story. In fact, it rarely ever helps. Most of the time, you’ll still need to find that inciting incident to start with. Once you’ve got that, you can move on to the core of your story.
Building Suspense With Your Plot
A good book builds suspense. This is true regardless of the genre. You need to have a series of events that will eventually lead to the big crisis in the novel, a struggle to get to the top of the mountain. This can happen over a single chapter or it might be stretched out through 50,000 words. The point isn’t how long it takes for the characters in your novel to get there. It’s simply to get there.
For the most part, the suspense-building part of developing your plot is all about throwing up hurdles that your characters, and especially your protagonist, have to overcome. They don’t necessarily succeed. At least, not at this point in the story. And if they do succeed, be prepared to introduce a new complication, one that doesn’t get solved right away.
The Crisis of the Novel
Novels are based around conflict of some sort. You might find it difficult to really define the ultimate crisis of your story while you’re in the middle of developing your plot. Step back and remind yourself of your story arc. If we’re sticking with the mountain analogy, the crisis of the story would be the mountain itself. It’s the entire point of the story, the “big bad” as some people would say. The crisis will vary, of course, depending on the type of book you’re writing. If you’re writing sword and sorcery fantasy, the crisis might be an evil mage who captured the princess. Historical romance often involves a guy pursuing a girl, but the girl is … reluctant. Your crisis can be physical or emotional. It really depends on the type of story you’re creating.
Both of my examples sound a little cheesy and overdone, but in the hands of a talented author, they become a unique and interesting story. The trick to developing a plot that will engage and keep your readers is to never stray too far from the crisis, from the purpose of the story. One way to think about this stage of developing your plot is to come up with the absolutely worst thing that can happen to your characters. Put them in a situation that seems hopeless. This is crisis moment of your story.
The Climax of the Story
When you reach the top of the mountain, something has to happen. And that something had better be the climax of the story. If you’ve done your job as a writer, the climax of the story will happen quickly, not be drawn out over five or ten chapters (unless those chapters are relatively short).
This part of the novel can be described as the resolution of the crisis. Your protagonist can’t sit in that oubliette until the day he dies. Well, he can, but that wouldn’t make for much of a story unless the entire thing takes place in his head, which would make him just a little crazy. In almost all cases, you eventually have to let the story resolve.
The climax should be swift and logical. The protagonist can’t suddenly find the key in his pocket if it wasn’t there before. And if it was there, why didn’t he use it? Things have to make sense, especially the climax of your story. This is where you can turn readers off your work for good if you’re not careful.
Make sure that everything that happens here has been set up in some way, even if the reader didn’t realize it at the time. If a reader can look back through your book and pick out the clues that led to the climax, then you’ve developed your plot to the point where every piece of the puzzle makes sense at the end.
Resolving Your Story
You may have resolved the crisis, but in most cases, there will still be a little left to wrap up. You can’t leave your readers standing on the top of the mountain. You have to bring them down the other side and pull all the various parts of the story together.
This is where subplots and relationships can be resolved. If you had two characters that hated each other but grew close over the course of the story, here is where you can really make that point. Maybe all the confusion and action was really about a son’s need to separate himself from his overbearing mother. If that’s where the story started, you have to take it back there. Make your story come full circle and your readers will walk away satisfied.
If you’ve managed to navigate the intricacies of developing a cohesive plot, you should have a well-rounded story on your hands. Examine your plot and determine what approach you should use for writing the novel itself. If you’re the type of writer who likes to use a novel outline, the blueprint approach might be for you. Perhaps you’re more of a bits and pieces person. However you approach writing your story, keep the arc of your story in mind and you will soon have a finished product on your hands.