The Secret to a Tight, Propulsive Plot: The Want, The Action, The Shift

From Jane Friedman:

Creating a story without at least some idea of your plot is like planning a trip without a route: You’re likely to wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.

But strong plot is more than just a series of interesting events. It’s a foundational element of what creates story—the road along which your character travels and is changed en route to a strongly held desire.

This basic definition of story means that plot is intrinsically tied to character. As a story element it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is both driven by and drives the protagonist: what she wants, the steps she takes to get it, and how she’s affected by each step on that journey.

You can adapt how much you decide to plot in advance of drafting based on whether you’re a die-hard plotter, a pantser, or something in between (“plantser”), but framing the overarching story as well as each scene within it through the lens of your characters and these three key elements—the want, the action, and the shift—will help guide you through creating a consistently cohesive and propulsive plot.

Think of your protagonist(s) as Tarzan.

If you want him to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, your job as the author is to make sure there’s a vine within reach when he needs it, that it swings him smoothly through the jungle canopy, and that there’s another vine ready for his grasp when he reaches the end of that arc. He can travel the whole jungle that way, all the way home to Jane.

That’s the sense readers should have of your character’s journey—that they’re effortlessly borne along with your protagonist on an unbroken series of arcs toward the final destination. The want is the vine awaiting the character’s grasp; the action is the swing; and the shift is the transfer from one vine to the next awaiting vine.

If any of these three stages fail, that smooth momentum is broken and you risk sending your protagonist—and your reader—plummeting to the forest floor, or stranded in the treetops or on a motionless vine.

This formula applies not just to each individual scene, but to the story as a whole. Before you even begin drafting, see if you can define your story through the lens of the want, the action, and the shift:

Hypercautious Marlon is desperate to keep his sole remaining child close to the safety of home and his protection after the rest of their family is killed, but when his son is swept out to sea, Marlon must face the dangers of the open ocean in trying to find him—and learns that life must be lived fully, despite the risks.

Did you recognize the key plot points in Finding Nemo?

  • The want is clownfish Marlon’s desire to keep Nemo safe in their little anemone and corner of the sea.
  • The resultant action is his journey to track Nemo down and bring him safely home, and all the challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and advances along the path to that goal.
  • The shift is Marlon’s realization that he can’t shelter Nemo from every danger, and that a meaningful life can’t be lived in fear.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

6 thoughts on “The Secret to a Tight, Propulsive Plot: The Want, The Action, The Shift”

  1. Finding Nemo is so full of coincidences and improbable plot twists it is useless as a guide to writers. Pull that one on literate adults without the acceptance of childish innocence (as I’m pretty sure a book I read did), and the conclusion is laughable.

    And when that is compounded by the ‘author’ deciding to leave the ending up to the reader – and the book hits the wall. (As it did.)

    The fiction writer’s job is more than putting an interesting situation onto the page. That’s what blog posts and comments are for.

    Think it through. Write it credibly. Choose the ending/moral/point. Stand by that choice with the story that leads up to it.

    • “The fiction writer’s job is more than putting an interesting situation onto the page. That’s what blog posts and comments are for.”

      That’s precisely why I doubt my ability to ever become a successful fiction writer, A.

      • Have you actually tried?
        Had a notion that you would like to read a story about?

        You never know what might stream out of your consciousness if you lock up the superego in the closet for a while.

  2. You won’t know until you try, PG.

    There’s a long apprenticeship – it takes a while before the words on the page equal the story in your head – but it’s like any other profession: if you have the desire, and the basic talent (which you obviously do: words), put in the time and effort, learn from the best teachers you can find (mine are hundreds of books On Writing, because in-person isn’t something I can do), it will get better as you go.

    It has been quite a ride, and I am grateful for every bit of it. I started in 1995. You should be a lot faster, given where you would start from.

    In thanks for all you’ve done for the writing and self-publishing community, I promise to buy a copy of your first fiction ebook on Amazon. Deal?

    • I would add, PG, that you have the advantage of a successful experienced author in residence. Besides having navigated the treacherous shoals of the “other stuff” besides writing.

      You certainly have the basic skills – some of your most enjoyable posts are the ones you do for Mrs. PG’s new releases. Certainly many life experiences to draw on, as well.

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