How do you create a story? You start writing and stuff starts happening. Right? True enough that’s how you write a story, but it is not, in fact, how to write the perfect plot. That takes a little more forethought and effort.
When we first start out as writers, we tend to have this belief that telling a story is as easy as creating characters and then having them do things on the page. But the true craft of story involves an understanding of not just the blow-by-blow of individual events within the narrative, but, most importantly, the big picture.
How to Tell if You’ve Written a Successful Plot
When you look at the big picture of your story’s plot, what do you see?
Is there a big picture? Is there a single red-hot point toward which all the scenes are driving? Is every scene building into the next scene, in an arrow-straight line pointed right toward that end goal? Does the end of your protagonist’s journey say something to readers?
The measure of how to write a perfect plot, ultimately, is whether or not it has created, not just a straggling line of vaguely interconnected scenes, but rather: Has it created a unified whole that speaks to one preordained purpose?
Why You Might Be Blinding Yourself to Your Plot’s Problems
I bet more authors than not are going to look at those questions in the previous section and say: “Of course my plot is a cohesive whole! Of course every scene matters!”
And maybe they do. But maybe they don’t.
It’s so incredibly easy to blind ourselves to our story’s problems, and one of the biggest blind spots is often that of plot cohesion. Please double check you’re not falling into these possible misconceptions about your story:
- Your character ends up in a big, important confrontation in the end of the story–ergo, all the scenes prior to that confrontation must have been leading up to it.
- Your character starts by wanting to fight the antagonist and ends by doing so–ergo, all the scenes in between the beginning and the end must be an unbroken line of cause and effect.
- Your character moves from one battle to the next (hitting all the important structural turning points)–ergo, all those battles must form one cohesive whole.
Unfortunately, ergo isn’t quite that easy. Just because the beginning and ending are in place doesn’t at all guarantee that the pieces in between are pertinent. And yet, it’s crazy easy for authors to totally miss this about their own stories!
How to Write a Perfect Plot, Pt. 1: The How Not To
I decided to write this post because I was mulling on a book I once read, which embodied all these problems. In a nutshell, the story went like this:
Once upon a time, several Very Important Characters decided to try to beat the Very Evil Bad Guy to the other side of the Very Important Kingdom. Mostly, they journeyed. And journeyed. And… journeyed. (And conducted many a Very Important Discussion about what they’d do to the VEBG when they found him.)
But, not to worry! Stuff happened! The First Plot Point arrives. So does the VEBG! Everyone does Very Exciting Battle, which ends in a draw.
The Midpoint arrives. So does the VEBG! Everyone does Very Exciting Battle, which ends in a draw.
The Third Plot Point arrives.
So does the VEBG! Everyone does Very Exciting Battle, which ends in a draw.
Then we reach the Climax. There’s another Not-Quite-So-Exciting Battle, in which, thank heavens, the VEBG finally gets dispatched.
That’s the big picture view. Doesn’t exactly look like a how to write a perfect plot, does it? What it looks like is a bunch of random conflicts that got strung together. (And we won’t even touch on why the bad guy managed to keep randomly showing up along the journey…)
How to Write a Perfect Plot, Pt. 2: The How To
Here’s how to write a perfect plot that is resonant from beginning to end in a way that creates a crystal-clear big picture of what the story is about.
It comes down to just two things:
1. Does Your Beginning Set Up Your Ending?
Doesn’t matter if you’re an outliner or pantser, at some point in your storytelling process, you must make sure your beginning and ending are linked. If you think of your beginning as a question, then the ending is the answer.
Primarily, you’ll set this up through your character’s inner and outer goals. These are the things he will be struggling to pursue throughout the story. The conflict keeps getting in his way–until finally, at the end, he either definitively gains or definitively loses what he desires.
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, you can’t set up one story in the beginning, only to segue into another story halfway through. Excellent plots only arise when every part of the story is working in harmony.
2. Does Each Scene Build Off the Beginning and Into the Ending?
Don’t mistake conflict (e.g., the Very Important Protagonist randomly slugging it out with the Very Evil Bad Guy) for pertinence. Every scene must be properly structured to advance the story. If your protagonist and antagonist keep meeting throughout the story in episodic sequences that are basically repeats of one another, then you have to ask yourself a question:
Are your scenes moving the plot? Or are they just filling in space before the Climax?
Make sure your scenes are “rolling” into each other, thanks to proper scene structure. Keep scenes focused on the main story goal, so they all contribute to that cohesive big picture.
If you’ve done your job right, then by the time readers reach the end of your story, they’ll be able to sit back in satisfaction and observe the big picture you’ve created for them–with no loose ends.