Writing a Crispy Plot
Here’s a method I came up with for remembering the key elements to good plotting:
CONFLICT – gotta have it.
What is conflict? The collision of opposing goals. The more central and personal to the characters, the better. It’s what puts the romance in the romance novel, the thrill in the thriller. How successful a book is depends on how invested the reader becomes in the resolution of that conflict.
External conflict is the easily visible action of the book: the murder mystery, the runaway train, the farmer and the cattleman fighting over the same plot of land. The higher the stakes, the more exciting the conflict. This is why so many thrillers seem to involve mass destruction.
Internal conflict is equally if not more important. What do the protagonists have to overcome within themselves in order to resolve the external conflict? This is the EMOTIONAL driver of the story. This is what makes us care about the characters and want to see them win. Do the farmer and the cattleman have to come to terms with their feelings surrounding the death of their father before they can stop fighting over the family acres? Does the heroine have to come to grips with her feelings of inadequacy before accepting the love of the hero? Does the detective have to forgive himself before he can seek justice for someone else?
Ever read a book that should have been good but you just didn’t care? Internal conflict was probably missing.
RESPONSE – Make sure your characters respond appropriately. Snarky and flippant can be funny, but have them in the right places. Make sure responses are emotional, described in a visceral way. It’s far more interesting to say: “Tears ached behind her eyes” than “she thought she might cry.”
INITIATIVE – Make sure your characters drive the action rather than just react to it. You can really see this in the way female roles have changed in popular fiction over the years– we look for a Buffy, not a girl who will stand on the sidelines and let the hero save the day. She’ll want to work together to kill the zombies.
A character’s decisions are an important part of the plotline and tell us a lot about their strengths and weaknesses. For example, Frodo accepts the challenge to take the ring to Mordor, even though no one really expects him to. His decision directs the next steps in the story and, just as important, makes the reader want to cheer him on.
STAKES – Keep rising throughout the book. Make the protagonist and the villain have to commit more and more in order to achieve his/her goal. The police detective may start out with a routine crime scene, where the stakes are significant but fairly localized. By the end, his soulmate is tied to a bomb about to blow up all of Manhattan and the villain is poised to release bubonic plague in a worldwide shipment of baby formula. Each chapter of the book ratchets up the consequences of failure.
PLOT – A big topic, but the basics include a beginning, middle and end. If we have conflict, response, initiatives, and high stakes, the rest will write itself with a little tweaking.
YIKES! – hooks to keep the page turning. Every chapter ending and beginning should have a question or teaser that propels the reader forward.
If you look at the first letter of each word, you get CRISPY. And that’s what we all want, right? A fresh, tasty plot!