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