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How to Craft a Page-Turning Plot

Book [1]
Photo by Camera Eye Photography.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a hard core plotter. I have outlines and spreadsheets. I cover tabletops with color-coded Post It notes with possible scenes. I have a system, and I work it religiously. Over the past decade, I’ve helped hundreds of authors get from a chaotic swirl of ideas to a coherent set of plot points. (Usually in under an hour.)

I am, quite frankly, a plotting freak of nature.

That’s not to say I think everyone should be a plotter. I recognize and respect “pantsers” — people who don’t do a lot of planning beforehand, preferring to work with exploratory drafts and feel the story out as they go. Neither method is inherently better than the other, and I am a firm believer in discovering and honoring your own process.

That also does not mean that I write “plot driven” books. As far as I’m concerned, all plot comes from character.

Let me repeat that, with emphasis.

ALL PLOT COMES FROM CHARACTER.

Without a solid understanding of your characters, and without a plot framework derived from those characters, you simply don’t have a sustainable plot. You have a bunch of events and several actors going through the motions.

What I’d like to go over today is why you might be having problems developing the plot of your novel. Here are the main issues I’ve seen my clients go through on a daily basis. 

  1. You’re not quite sure what “plot points” are, specifically.

Don’t get me wrong. You may be quite conversant the terms. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read a stack of writing reference books that, if toppled, could crush a small child. You also may pick up more, obsessively and compulsively, every time you’re in the bookstore or library.

(No judgment. We’re writers — it’s what we do.)

You may have studied the Snowflake Method, story engineering, things about breaking in and breaking out and saving cats. Beat sheets. Vision boards. How to write a book in a year, a month, a weekend.

Possibly because of this deluge of information, you may not be quite sure what you’re trying to accomplish in your novel. Or, conversely, you may be trying to accomplish too much, splicing different systems in a way that’s not quite working.

Keep it simple.

I write and teach genre fiction. My particular emphasis is on three act structure.

You have a protagonist. Her character is going to change by the end of the book.

The conflicts that she faces throughout the book are what institute the change.

She faces conflict because she wants something.

The inciting incident is the first domino struck: if the incident hadn’t occurred, then the protagonist would not have a goal.

The first plot point, generally the end of the first act, is where the goal is established, although the protagonist has no idea how to accomplish said goal.

The midpoint is a turning point, where the protagonist goes from reactive to proactive — from aimless to focused.

The third plot point is the hardest to pin down, where the protagonist sets up for the final act… the calm before the storm, the prep, a moment of confidence because they’re stronger.

Then, there’s the black moment, where the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist, in terms of the story goal, strikes.

Then the climax and resolution. The protagonist’s transformation is complete. Through the lessons learned, the protagonist is changed and the goal is either obtained or not, depending on the kind of story you’re writing.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Again, this isn’t the only system, and it may not be the best for you. But I have found it helps to approach it in terms of your character thinking:

– “I want this, it’s important, but I don’t know what I’m doing”

– “I know what I”m doing, but it’s going to be really hard.”

– “I may have the hang of this, but I’m scared.”

– “My soul is absolutely crushed.”

– “I have grown, changed, and become more than I was. I resolve the goal, one way or another, as a result.”

When you look at it in terms of character, emphasizing change, you’ll usually find the middle starts shaping up a bit more easily.

  1. You don’t know your characters well enough.

Again, all plot stems from character. In genre fiction especially, this stems from the GMC — Goal, Motivation, Conflict.

I’ve blogged about this before [2], but if you don’t know what your character wants, or if the reason she wants it isn’t strong enough, or if the conflict is too weak, then you will have a hell of a time getting the story going.

This is a two pronged approach: there’s an external goal (the bit they usually put on the back cover blurb) and an internal goal, which is the reason driving the character.

If you don’t know what your character wants, you’ll have trouble getting started.

If you don’t know what’s driving your character to want it, then you’re going to get stuck in the middle.

[pullquote]Think like a psychologist. Find the motivating forces, the fears, the desires.[/pullquote]

This is more than just knowing their physical traits, favorite color, and childhood history. Think like a psychologist. Find the motivating forces, the fears, the desires. This is not only what creates the story goal, it’s where you’ll find the most effective motivation and the strongest pain points for conflict, both internal and external. This is the fuel for your writing engine.

  1. You’re creating plot points for the story, rather than the characters.

This is where people get caught up with “plot driven” versus “character driven” stories. There’s no point in doing all that character work if you’re them going to approach the plot as something separate, derived from “the story.” The plot is always a showcase for character development. As a result, the more protagonists you have, the more separate plot lines you need to track.

Stories don’t have plot points. Characters have plot points.

[pullquote]Stories don’t have plot points. Characters have plot points.[/pullquote]

  1. You’re pulling your punches.

You may find yourself flailing because, while you’ve got a lot of scenes, nothing seems to really be happening. Your conflict falls flat. There are pages and pages of throat clearing and needless wandering. There’s a lot of internal thought and exposition. But there isn’t a lot of action — because you don’t want to hurt your protagonist.

I am a plot dominatrix. My characters are put into a lot of hideous, soul-crushing pain. (And I write comedies, people!)

[pullquote]Your novel is a protagonist’s crucible.[/pullquote]

Stories are about characters who change. Change occurs as a result of conflict.  Your novel is a protagonist’s crucible. Turn up the heat. You want conflict escalating in every single scene.

Yes, EVERY SCENE.

Now, I’m sure some of you will think “well, this isn’t that kind of book. I’m not writing a thriller or a murder mystery.”

But even if you’re writing a novel about a small town octogenarian couple finding romance for the first time, you still need conflict.

“Conflict” doesn’t have to mean car chases and explosions and secret babies and volcanoes. In fact, emotional conflict is one of the most powerful hooks you can use, because it’s something everyone can relate to. Not everyone has been shot. Almost everyone has had his heart broken.

And there you have it.

Story comes from character. (I feel like my Driver’s Ed teacher, who had us write “Never get in a head-on collision” a thousand times so we’d remember it.  All together now:  story comes from character!)

If you’re having problems creating a cohesive story, always look to your characters first. Find out their hopes, dreams and fears. Figure out the goal of your book. Then throw enough conflict at them to break them down, before forging them into the stronger characters they’ll be at the end.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to plotting your stories?  

About Cathy Yardley [3]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [4] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [4]

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