As I believe I have said before, ideas are the easy part of writing. They are always the bright and shiny bits that bounce around in your head before you get to the nitty-gritty part of actually writing. But what happens when all you have is an idea–not even a true plot? That’s where you have to take your idea from premise to plot.
Now, when it comes to creative writing, I’m all for rule breaking. That’s the creative part, after all–not having to do everything to the letter, messing with grammar, all of those fun bits that make creative writing different from formal essays or business writing. As I have mentioned before, however, you need to know the rules before you can break them. And so, for building a plot, that entails knowing the general elements to a plot.
For those who paid attention to that day in English class, you might have seen plots lain out as a graph that looks something like this:
Basically these plot graphs break the essence of a plot into six (or so) sections:
1) Exposition (explaining your “normal”). Generally this section is one of the shortest parts of your story if you’re following the common advice of “Get to the Action”. This section of the story establishes what is “normal” in your story’s world. This might be what is normal in everyday life, or it might be dragons flying around and wizards having duels. The point of this section is to show what your character considers their normal life. Should nothing happen at this point, there would be no real plot. It would be a character study of how your protagonist goes about their day (generally not that exciting to read).
2) Inciting incident (changing “normal”). The inciting incident is the deviation from the normal. This can be something simple (the character deciding they are unhappy with their life) or catastrophic (terrorists blowing up the character’s hometown and killing the character’s entire family). The inciting incident just needs to get the character moving on their story–and ideally it happens as early as possible so you don’t lose the reader with boring “normal”.
3) Rising Action. Rising Action makes up the bulk of the story. It is a series of events (as shown above) which eventually leads to the climax. As this tends to make the bulk of a plot I will touch on this later.
4) The Climax. The climax is what the entire story has been building to. It’s the final battle with the big bad, the underdog sports team winning the championship, or anything else where your protagonist finally reaches (or learns they will never reach) their main goal that has been driving the story (see below section on rising action). As the name would suggest, the climax is generally a large, blow out, (often) action-filled section, whatever it ends up being–the main point, however, is that it is definitive. Your protagonist wins or loses based on this moment (to whatever extent a win/loss is possible in your story).
5) Denouement (also called Falling Action like above, regaining “normal”). A denouement is the aftermath of the climax and a return to the “new” normal. Things may not have gone back to how they were at the start of the story (often times things are radically different) but the battle is over, the game is won, your protagonist has done whatever they can and are now going to settle into their new reality (whether that being their world changing, them changing, or everything actually going back to how it was).
6) Conclusion (settling into the new “normal”). Possibly part of the denouement, the conclusion is a (probably) short bit that shows the character living once again in “normal” Sometimes this is an epilogue, sometimes it’s not there at all (such as in open-ended endings). While some graphs show the conclusion as the opposite side of exposition (where it forms a mountain), I personally prefer the graph above, as it doesn’t make it seem like the conclusion must be in the same vein as exposition.
Now, as I said, writers by no means should feel married to this exact lay out for their story–if you can think of something awesome that doesn’t fit into this structure, do it–but most stories follow something of the kind.
Anyway, since the bulk of a story using this structure is spent in rising action, this tends to be the part that really turns a premise into a plot. For example, let’s analyze the first Harry Potter book. Before writing even started, there was a premise (boy wizard goes to magic school). From there you have exposition (life in the normal “muggle” world) and inciting incident (boy learns he’s a wizard/goes to school). There’s the climax (battle with the big bad [Voldemort]). And denouement/conclusion with leaving school for the year. Taking all those bits out, you are left with the bulk of the story–rising action.
So what do you do when you have a premise (or premise and ending) and not much else? You figure out what your character wants. Desires are what fuel action in real life, they’re what fuel story characters. If your characters are entirely content, why are they doing anything other than the boring stuff they were doing to start with? A character has to have a want–even if that want is just to get back to normal after being thrown out of it in the inciting incident. The events shown in rising action can be external (people attacking the protagonist, a natural disaster) but the character needs to be in those positions because of their wants and desires. Perhaps they are attacked while on the road going from point A to point B, but why are they on that road in the first place? Likely because it is a step to reaching whatever desire/goal they have for themselves.
(Note: The climax is the resolution of the character’s ultimate goal, but there should be smaller steps between the inciting incident and the climax. These are either steps to lead to that ultimate goal or smaller goals which generally make for subplots).
And so, long story short, when you’re caught trying to figure out how to plot out your book, stop focusing on the plot, and focus on your characters. Once you know why your characters are doing something, the easier it will be to have them realistically move the plot forward.
And if all else fails, throw in zombies. Zombies always get things moving.
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