As writers, we hear a lot about the importance of plot. It should be compelling. It should be moving. It should invite the reader to get comfortable and sink deeper. And understanding how to write a plot that compels, moves, and hooks a reader is a skill you must develop, nurture, and refine.
But we first need to understand what a plot should achieve and which 3 basic story elements a healthy plot is built on.
So what the heck is a plot, anyway?
Most simply defined, plot is what happens during the story.
Saying "plot is a sequence of events" is a good place to start, but that's too broad. For a story to feel compelling, it needs to be focused. In character-driven fiction, that focus should be on the growth journey of the main characters, the transformation they experience from start to finish.
So, then, a plot is the series of story events that define the path a character takes to become a better (or worse) version of themselves.
Plot definition: The series of story events that define the path a character takes to become a better (or worse) version of themselves.
The basic plot framework
Every story (and writer) has a unique feel and tone, and readers are attracted to genres (and writers) that they believe will deliver specific emotional experiences. So there's no all-purpose blueprint for exactly what scenes your story should have.
But we can—and should—understand the purpose of each scene and how it moves a reader through the emotional rollercoaster of the character's growth journey. Let's take a look at the three most basic plot elements.
Forks in the road
Your story's plot should set up (at least) two decision points that force the character to decide between the pain of change and the pain of remaining the same. Setting up the right decision forks is what hooks readers. They need to see a little of their own struggles in the character's journey.
At the first fork in their path, the character is asked to face a fear.
The decision they make at this point in the story will either add stress to their life (but ultimately result in more happiness) or will actively avoid dealing with extra stress (and delay achieving more happiness).
Your first plot point should park your character at this fork in the road, and all the scenes before that point should set up this impending choice and push them towards it.
Usually—especially in romantic fiction, where we focus on positive growth arcs—the character chooses to avoid facing their true fear at the first fork in the road.
The second fork in their journey offers another chance to face the same fear.
If your character chose to avoid their fear at the first fork, this is where they'll make the hard choice and embrace that painful change. The second fork is usually a major event in the story, and it's totally fine if your readers see this event or choice coming (especially if you're writing romance—out-of-the-blue surprise plot twists can frustrate traditional romance readers).
By this point, the character should understand why the short-term suffering is worth the long-term gain and be willing and ready to accept the pain of change.
Pro Tip: If you're writing a negative change arc, your forks in the road will be reversed. The character will initially make the "right" choice—they'll seem to be on a growth path—but ultimately choose fear over happiness and end the story as a worse version of themselves.
The Changing Ground
The Changing Ground is where writers tend to run into trouble. If you've heard of a "saggy middle", here's where it will show up.
So what is the Changing Ground, and why is it essential to the plot?
This is the part of the story where your character begins to see the possibility of change and glimpse the benefits of facing their fear.
They begin the Changing Ground firmly in their safe place, then slowly begin to open their mind to other options. By the end of this story phase, they're almost ready to make that big change and just need a final push (or an obvious opportunity).
This is the part of the journey where a character experiences the micro-growths and setbacks that help them understand what kind of person they want to become.
The Changing Ground should include these character details:
Map out all the answers above, then figure out what scenes and series of events will guide your character through those Aha! moments and self-realizations.
The final must-have piece of your story's plot structure is The Sacrifice. This is the part of the story that should bring your readers all the feels, and it usually happens in the final quarter of the book.
As humans, we tend to hold ourselves back. We cling to beliefs, possessions, or goals that anchor us in place. And standing still might be exactly the break we need to recover or get comfortable with where we are in our lives right now.
But growth means change. And change means setting new priorities. Change is movement.
Your character must give up something important to them right now in order to achieve or obtain something even more important for their future happiness.
Your character must give up something now to be happy in the future. That thing should be important and feel essential to who they are.
Sometimes what they give up will haunt them forever, but that loss will be worth the (eventual) gain of growth. Sometimes their future self's priorities will have shifted so much that they can look back and realize they never really needed the thing they gave up anyway.
How do you know which situation is right for your character? Making that choice is part of your job as the storyteller.
A caterpillar must give up its legs to gain its wings as a butterfly. The butterfly can't really walk anymore, but it doesn't care, because now it can fly. In its new world—the air and trees—it doesn't need to walk.
A retired businesswoman who chooses to give up her high-paying job to spend more time with her family may gain intangible riches (the emotional satisfaction of being surrounded by loved ones and experiencing important life moments) but she might always miss that extra income and the physical freedom that comes with affluence.
Pro Tip: Decide whether your character should sacrifice a physical thing to gain a physical thing (like the butterfly) or whether your character values one type of happiness over another (emotional vs physical). This is an integral decision you must make as the storyteller when designing your character's growth arc.
This framework is just the beginning
These three must-have plot pieces are the foundation of a compelling story that hooks readers.
If you were expecting to hear about goals, conflict, and motivation, don't worry—those matter, too! But they're only part of the basic plot foundation.
Once you understand how choices, change, and sacrifice create the bones of a compelling growth journey for your character, you can really dig deep into the yummy nitty-gritty nuances of plot and craft a story that moves readers.
So start here, with these three basics. Then keep learning and growing. Don't be afraid to make mistakes and try new things. Every word you write builds up your skill as an author, even the ones you know you're going to redline.
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