Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Secret to Plot in Your Novel

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by C. Patrick Schulze

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What makes for good fiction? Is it character, PLOT, story, setting, voice, dialogue or some other component of your novel? The answer is PLOT; the story of what happens. Think of it this way. You can find millions of different characters, tens of thousands of settings and about a dozen stories. But as Jim Thompson says, “There is only one plot—things are not as they seem.” What makes your novel stand out is its plot, that series of causes and effects found within your story.

To create a meaningful plot, you need at least one main character who suffers some level of conflict, that inability to achieve what it is he wants. This conflict, his emotional reactions to the obstacles placed before him, is the crux of your plot. It is this inexorable series of obstacles your hero faces, and how he overcomes them, that hooks your readers.

The secret to plot, is that it flows from your characters. The basis of this is your hero's desire for something beyond all else, that is kept from him. This ever-rising tension and conflict or your character's hardships, are what make up your plot.

When you write a story, you create a sequence of events that moves the hero toward what it is he wants. However, your greatest effort should be in your introduction of conflict, those ever larger obstacles and the increasing resistance your hero experiences. You first give him a goal to surpass, then once he completes this task, deny him his desire. Then you have him master a more difficult challenge, then deny him yet again. Do this over, and over, and over again. Of course, the hero will at some point reach his goal, but you must keep it from him as long as the story, and your word count, allow. This constant battle between upheaval and triumph is what develops your plot and engrosses your readers.

Your character's conflict, and thus the plot, may derive from either internal or external sources. Regardless, they thwart his progress until the very end of your novel. We all know external conflict can be exciting, but what can place your novel above others is your hero's internal struggles. Consider this basic storyline. Your hero has a burning desire to become a surgeon, but faints at the sight of blood. Which is the most moving aspect to the character's goals? Is it the struggle to become a doctor or the sight of blood issue? His struggles to master his fear will have the most power with your readers.

In addition to plot, you have a wonderful tool you may employ called "SUBPLOT." That is, each major character is haunted by some minor conflict that further hinders him. This, too, can be internal or external in nature but if used effectively, can give a great deal of life to your novel.

Now for some quotes about plot from those famous among us.

"'The King died and the Queen died' is a story. 'The King died and the Queen died of grief' is a plot." E.M. Forster

“Plots are what the writer sees with.” Eudora Welty

“Plot is structuring the events of the story.” Aristotle

“Character, of course, is the heart of fiction. Plot is there to give the characters something to do.” John Dufresne

“When a character does something, he becomes that character; and it’s the character’s act of doing that becomes your plot.” Henry James

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. C. Patrick SchulzeMay 25, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    Thanks, Alex. Hope you can put it to good use.


  2. I'm a character-driven writer and can find plot and structure really hard. But this was frank and clear and I think it will help me. Thanks!

  3. C Patrick SchulzeMay 26, 2010 at 6:25 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Sarah.

    I'm fascinated as a character-driven writer the issues you face with plot and structure. I'd love to write an article about it. Would you care to give me some ideas of what issues you face?

    Many thanks,