Creative Writing:
What You Need To Know About Plot

In creative writing, a good plot is about a significant disturbance to the characters’ inner and outer lives.

Plot is the train that carries the story.

We book lovers read a novel with the expectation that it will transport us to an imaginary world that transcends our ordinary existence. That’s what readers want.

As writers, what are we to do? Repeat after me: “Give readers what they want!”

How? By using cleverly designed plot, you send your readers on a mystical journey, so they identify with the character(s) you develop. It doesn’t need to be complicated. For example, Eudora Welty’s plot for her short story, Why I Live at the P.O., was inspired by a photograph she took of a woman ironing in the back of the local post office!

No, you don’t have to get an ironing board! Plot isn’t the same as story, but it makes the story.

The author James Scott Bell tells us that plot is “telling a story in a way that transports the reader through the illusion that life is taking place right on the page.”

Another definition: plot is the train that carries the story by telling us what happens. It is about a significant disruption to the characters’ inner and outer lives. Scenes are the cars that make up the train. Each scene, beginning with the first line, should pull the reader inside to experience with the character(s) an emotionally intense situation, ending with something so surprising or fresh that the reader is simply compelled to ... turn the page! There you go.

Or as Billy Wilder, the noted writer-director, was quoted as saying, “In the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.” Complicate their lives; readers like that.

But here’s what readers don’t like: expected plot resolutions. In other words, how do you get someone down from a burning tree? The fire truck rushes up, puts out the fire, and offers the protagonist a ladder. Right? Wrong! That’s the obvious resolution, and a boring one to a reader. A good story plot that works provides an unexpected twist.

Consider these ideas: The fire truck is driven by the protagonist’s jilted love interest. Or even worse, the truck is driven by the antagonist whom the protagonist despises. There are all kinds of possible twists to these scenarios, but the important thing is, these plot twists are unexpected.

To make our stories connect, use the tools of plot:

  • Memorable characters
  • Pressurized, despairing, no-win settings
  • Dialogue that advances the story
  • Emotions that reveal character.
Then up the stakes: add conflict—man against man, nature, society, against himself.

Plot focuses on the significant aspects of the main characters, and prompts all characters to shape the story. It reveals the story gradually, pointing to an eventual climax that will give the reader an emotional release and (usually) get your protagonist out of Billy Wilder’s burning tree.

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