As everyone who has ever read a story knows, there are three basic stages of a book:
- a beginning
- a middle
- an end.
Yet for those writing the books, plot is a lot trickier than these three simple steps, especially if you look at it as a whole.
Sometimes there are too many story threads to hold up and you don’t have enough hands. I’ve tangled myself in my own weaving more than once, which is why I’ve decided to share my method of ‘breaking it down’.
To help demonstrate the different stages of plot (main and 1 subplot), I’m going to tell a silly adventure story. Please bear with me, I will literally making the story up as I go along.
N.B. This template won’t be applicable to all stories, but should act as a decent guideline from which to work. After all, a plot is a story’s structure, not its heart.
PART ONE: THE BEGINNING
Okay, so we have a basic character(s) and a vague story idea.
- Character(s): Dave and Susan
- Story idea: A couple are walking down the street.
Step 1: Introduce the main story goal/quest.
Step 2: Introduce conflict
Step 3: Characters create a plan to defeat conflict. (Remember their strengths and weaknesses).
- Dave is afraid of giant man-eating rats, and this one is over nine foot tall. He is, however, incredibly strong and imaginative.
- Susan is not afraid of giant man-eating rats but she is very short. She is carrying a knife and knows how to use it, because she’s a practical kind of girl.
- Dave comes up with the idea of making a pole-vault. Using his incredible strength, he will snap a long bough from a nearby tree and fashion it into a long pole that Susan can use.
- Whilst he does this, Susan will defend their territory with the knife. One he’s done, Susan will jump on top of the rat using the pole and kill it.
PART TWO: THE MIDDLE
Step 4: The journey begins/Conflict vs. heroes
- Dave successfully fashions a pole out of a broken tree and Susan, meanwhile, is also successfully keeping the giant man-eating rat at bay with her knife.
- Once the pole is complete, she tucks her knife in her belt and takes hold of the pole. She runs, she jumps…
Step 5: Thwarted! The short-term goal is unsuccessful.
- … just as the giant man-eating rat lunges forward. Susan misses the rat completely and falls to the ground like a stone. By the time she recovers, she turns to see the giant man-eating rat swallowing Dave whole. He was left without the knife as Susan took it with her, so he was completely vulnerable. Bad planning, Susan.
NOTE: Steps 3-5 can be repeated several times to raise the stakes of the plot. Remember that these are short-term goals and can be different each time. Sub-plots can be linked to new ways of thwarting/creating conflict.
Step 6: Reaction/reflection/a new hope
- Susan is upset that her husband has been eaten alive.
- Dave is probably more upset. He valiantly tries not to be digested.
- Susan hears noises from inside the giant-man eating rat and realises that Dave is alive. The man-eating rat turns on her. Susan no longer has the pole because it broke, so has to think fast.
NOTE: This is where sub-plots can come into play. For example, Susan could be pregnant with Dave’s baby and not have told him yet.
PART THREE: THE END
Step 7: The quest begins anew
- Susan still has the knife. She decides that she’s going to also be swallowed whole and cut herself and Dave out from the inside.
- Susan walks up to the giant rat and begins shouting at it, trying to anger it. She’s hoping it will swallow her whole. The rat, being hungry, kindly obliges Susan and swallows her whole.
Step 8: The showdown/pivotal moment
Note: This is another place ‘thwarted’ can come into play. For instance, Susan could drop the knife in the stomach acid and Dave might dive down to retrieve it.
- Susan crashes into Dave, who was stuck in the rat’s throat, and they both skid down into the big pool of stomach acid.
- Reunited, Susan tells Dave that she’s pregnant with his baby. This gives them both a higher purpose and the reason to live beyond their own survival.
- Susan hands the knife to Dave. With his immense strength, he stands a better chance of killing the rat and breaking through the layers of skin and body fat.
- Dave is initially reluctant because he’s afraid of rats, but Susan points out that he’s already inside a rat’s stomach, so it’s probably time to face his fear.
Step 9: Conflict is resolved/quest completed
- Dave successfully cuts through the giant rat’s layers and he and Susan escape with mild lacerations and several second degree burns.
- Having spent so much time fighting and being eaten, Dave and Susan have missed the original bus but, by happy chance, they’re bang on time for the next one, so they don’t need to wait.
- Dave and Susan get on the bus but both agree that, instead of going shopping, they’re going to go to the hospital. Probably wise.
Step 10: Reflection/reaction/characters show evolution
- Dave is going to get his life together and stop being such a scaredy-cat all the time. After all, if he’s going to be a father, he’ll need to be able to protect his child.
- Susan is lost in thought about the giant man-eating rat. Where did it come from? Why was it there? Perhaps they should call the police. Susan decides that she needs to know more about what happened and resolves to investigate until she gets some answers.
Step 11: (Bonus/Optional) Resurgence of conflict for cliffhanger
A laboratory. An evil genius sits, stroking a (normal sized) lab-rat. He was once dumped by Susan and harbours an amazingly unhealthy obsession with her. He bred the giant rat because he knew Dave was afraid of them. The first one failed, but it doesn’t matter.
He has lots more.
Now, I’m not saying you need to follow this plot template exactly. It is very basic and only touches on a main thread of a story. Depending on the story, the repetitive ‘short-term goals’ I’ve suggested may not be necessary; one short-term goal could suffice. There are sub-plots to be woven in at different stages too. The long-term story goal could even change in the process of your plot – it happens!
Please feel free to comment below.