How to Write the Perfect Plot Header

How to Write the Perfect Plot (in 2 Easy Steps)

How to Write the Perfect Plot PinterestHow 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.

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.

More journeying.

The Midpoint arrives. So does the VEBG! Everyone does Very Exciting Battle, which ends in a draw.

More journeying.

The Third Plot Point arrives.

So does the VEBG! Everyone does Very Exciting Battle, which ends in a draw.

More journeying.

Then we reach the Climax. There’s another Not-Quite-So-Exciting Battle, in which, thank heavens, the VEBG finally gets dispatched.

THE END

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion: What do you think are the most important steps in how to write a perfect plot? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Well, good morning sunshine!!!
    Hadn’t seen ya in like, 10 years it seems.

    I’m really liking this one. You kinda pulled the Yoda thing on us again. I’m realizing that all my problems are related to one thing. A lack of outlining. Well, maybe two problems. The other, being unsure of my writing process. Obviously that’s a lifelong journey, but it helps if you have the nuts and bolts early on.

    I love the thought of cohesion you’ve so wonderfully sown here. I think that all the difference in a story. Is it cohesive? Does it make sense and leave it’s imprint on your forehead?
    Good food for thought.

    Ah, much to learn, JM Weiland. Many things, yes there are..

  2. I’m not a fan of quest novels where the hero has to go visit a series of individuals and collect a laundry list of Things in order to prepare for the Final Conflict with the Bad Guy. I much prefer the stories where the protagonist has to prepare himself for the coming battle. The former seem like hodge-podge collections that can be assembled in any order while the latter build in a logical progression where things layer one upon another.

    I much prefer stories like The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven and The Karate Kid because we see the growth of the protagonist over time. Many of L. Frank Baum’s stories were quests and, while his characters and adventures were interesting, the stories lacked substance and staying power. That’s not to say it’s bad writing, simply the kind of writing I’d prefer not to read.

    A plot should build something that wasn’t there before the plot existed. I think Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell does this well on multiple levels and I was sorry to see the movie mess it up so badly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ve pretty well stated my preferences as well. There’s a long and respected history of quest novels, but personally I much prefer the rich weave of cohesive and repeated elements throughout the story.

  3. Kate Flournoy says:

    Good stuff. I’ve been reloading this page like five times every day waiting for this post, and it didn’t disappoint. 😉

    A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that every scene should contain something that changes the flavor/direction of the plot, however subtly, on whatever level. It might simply be a teensy forward step in a character’s arc, or it might be a mind boggling discovery about the villain that will end up contributing to his downfall. It might even just be a tiny smidgen of foreshadowing. But it has to be there.

    And hey @Benjamin, fellow pantser— I wouldn’t worry too much about lack of outlining. I’m beginning to realize I probably should start doing at least a basic outline, but I didn’t outline my WIP, and though it had a ton of what Katie says NOT to do in it, once I had it written and had familiarized myself with the story, it’s been incredibly simple to streamline the plot. I’m very happy with it, which is saying a lot for a perfectionist like me. 😉

    • Louis Wilberger says:

      One only had to look to the classic Walt Disney Snow White. You will notice that the queen feels her position is threatened only after Snow meets the handsome prince. She then goes to the Mirror and discovers the the truth and she plots the demise of Snow but is thwarted by the Seven Dwarfs. Her story is the catalyst and ends with loves first kiss which is ancillary to the Spell. The queens story is from the Mirror to her death. Snows story is from the love scene to the first kiss. Every scene is masterfully crafted and designed for maximum effect.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        @Louis: This is actually something I’m going to talk about soon as well, which is that: it’s the antagonist’s story that drives the plot. That’s the foundation. We need to know that before can understand the protagonist’s goals or journey.

        • Nitpick alert: I wouldn’t have used both “that” and a colon. I would use “that” alone, or colon alone, or “this” plus a colon.

        • What if it’s an antagonistic force, such as the weather or “society” or a great white whale?

          (Guess what came up #1 when I googled: examples “antagonistic force”)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yep, same thing applies to a non-human antagonistic force–although, of course, the force itself will be much simplified.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! What time zone are you in? The posts generally go live at 4AM MST.

      Good rule of thumb. I say it all the time–don’t include a scene that doesn’t advance the plot–but sometimes the actual intent of that can get lost (I think I feel a post coming on). You’ve hit the nail on the head: every single scene should *change* something in the story, whether small or great.

      • That is a good guideline …

        I have read at least one book that had a completely unnecessary scene that was random and did nothing so far as I could tell to advance the plot. However, it managed to create a refreshing break from the rest of story, though, and earned many fans. I refer more specifically to Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings.

        While you wouldn’t want to include a great number of such scenes in a book, (or movie) you could safely include one I think, or a small series of interspersed, related ones if they are amusing, as a sort of side entertainment. (If your story is awesome enough:)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The only rule that matters in writing is: Never break the rules–except when you can do it brilliantly.

    • That’s awesome thanks. Last year I didn’t outline my WIP either. I’m getting a better handle of the story now, which helps. Right now trying to deepen my protagonist and working on other stuff.

      I knew we were siblings!

    • I really like how you say “flavor/direction” instead of just direction. I like thick stories with lots of digressions. I don’t dislike streamlined stories where each scene logically progresses the action, but I usually enjoy stories with lots of bumps in the road even more. But each bump still needs to have a place in the structure, or, as you put it, contribute something to the flavor!

  4. I’m currently experimenting with a system to write a story. It’s still a WiP. I’ve put it into a flowchart because I’m an engineering student and I like closed systems. Here it is: http://i.imgur.com/b5olcub.jpg

    It’s just big because of the comments, actually it’s pretty simple. All you need is a piece of paper/your favourite word processor and on that a table with three columns called “Desires”, “Complications” and “Solutions”.

    You do whatever stands in the green boxes and answer questions in the diamond shaped boxes. The red boxes are relevant comments. Stuff in -Brackets refers to things you do in your table.

    means you erase it from your table and in the story it means this part is resolved. means literally the last one you wrote down.

    Whenever you tackle a Desire/Complication/Solution it becomes active. Only one Desire/Complication/Solution can be active at a time. It’s just important so the stuff in the -Brackets is crystal clear.

    A desire stands for itself. A complication has to be linked to at least one desire, it may be linked to multiple desires. A solution always tackles a complication.

    Using that there should be no scene, that doesn’t move the plot or doesn’t move the character. I don’t claim completeness in a sense of features, however you should start out with 0 Desires/Complications/Solutions (blank page) and end with 0 Desires/Complications/Solutions (resolution).

    • Something got rid of the stuff in triangle-brackets. That’s what I meant. There’s one paragraph that doesn’t make sense now. I’ll repeat it with round brackets:

      “(erase) means you erase it from your table and in the story it means this part is resolved. (previous) means literally the last one you wrote down.”

      Also “-Brackets” should be “*triangle shaped*-Brackets”.

  5. Curtis Manges says:

    I like the movie “Galaxy Quest” and a example. The cast start out as bad actors, move on to being bad astronauts, become *better* astronauts, and at the end emerge again as better actors. Nice, satisfying turnaround.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I still haven’t seen that one. I must. Just because of, you know, Alan Rickman.

      • JC Martell says:

        Alan Rickman is outstanding in Galaxy Guest. He was my absolute inspiration for writing. Three years ago, due to a strange string of circumstances, I “discovered” him. He made ME want to create characters. (Nobody does it better than Mr. Rickman!)

        In his first scene in Sense & Sensibility, he displayed five distinct facial expressions – in about five seconds. And, of course, that was one of his less unique characters…

        In Interviews he talked a great deal about “sharing the responsibility” for the story with the audience (reader).

        I intend to include a special dedication to him in my first book. I had hoped he would read it and be proud of what he inspired.

        Sorry for going off on this, but I am still in morning for this man who is the master at “showing”.

      • JC Martell says:

        Okay, one more comment about AR. In some ways he was a bad example for good writing: the antagonist is not supposed to outshine the protagonist, which he did many times.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hah. I have this (not-so-theoretical) theory that really good antagonists are *always* more interesting than the protags for the simple reason (which Rickman embodied so well) that they’re inevitably more complex.

          • It’s certainly been my experience that antags have been more interesting. Don’t think there’s any reason for them not to be, certainly. Although maybe we should have more complex characters as heroes. Maybe even center on heroes like Vader, who in the end became a hero again.

            I’d say that’s what this world needs: more stories about how to get off the villain road once you know you’re on it.

  6. Great post. Plot is definitely something I need to work on. I’m not sure if anything I’ve written has really got that arrow of a plot, but I’ll work on it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plot and character work hand in hand. It’s really a myth that we can have one without the other–much less that one is more important than the other. Pay attention to what your characters want and how they need to change to become fulfilled people. The plot is always right at the heart of that.

  7. It’s a little strange, but I think I might know the novel you’re talking about. Unless, of course, you just made it up to make a point. There is a novel I like that has received similar complaints. But, I loved every minute of reading it, so I never noticed or cared about any possible plot issues.

    Your question about writing a good plot, I think you are correct in that the ending needs to tie directly to the beginning and everything in between needs to lead the reader to the end – not just be relevant, but actually move the story along. That being said, I like a book with good character development. To me that might even be more important than plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I did have a particular novel in mind when writing the example, but, frankly, it’s a not-uncommon problem in fantasy novels. 😕

      Totally agree about character development, but it’s important to realize that not only are plot and character *not* in competition, but that neither of them can be fully realized without the other. Good plot doesn’t get in the way of good character development: it creates it.

  8. K.M. Weiland, I feel like you’ve read the same book as me…or maybe there are just that many books with plot holes!
    Anyway, your advice is really great. The books I enjoy the most are ones where the dots are connected by the end. I even like the ones where a seemingly unimportant detail is found to be important in the end.
    Sometimes an outline is great for keeping track of these various points. However, I’ve heard from people who are “pantsers” as you call them who often go back to add the necessary details for their plot to end well. Either way, the plot points have to tie together.
    Thank you for the great advice, definitely a to-do for me!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, there are a lot of books like this. Sadly, it’s a common plotting problem.

      As for outlining vs. pantsing, they’re really just two sides of the same coin. I prefer outlining, since it saves me time and trouble upfront. But, either way, we have to come back and smooth everything into a cohesive whole.

      • In some ways, it’s encouraging to realize how flawed many published novels are, and also how much people can still enjoy them. Like many English majors, I had a hard time writing for the longest time because I didn’t think I had the skill to write real literature. But I’ve realized two things: first, I don’t know how much skill I can have until I work at it; and second, even if what I write isn’t classic literature, it may still bring pleasure and insight to readers.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like to say I’m a forgiving critic. I *am* very critical of the objective quality of storytelling, but if the story wins me over emotionally, I’ll forgive any number of those flaws. Some of my favorite stories are deeply flawed, and it simply doesn’t matter because they made me love them.

          That said, it’s usually easier to get readers to love you if you’re less flawed than not. 😉

  9. My character Amelia often faces other bad guys in the first and second story, but comes across Victor a lot, and comes across a girl named Samantha Storms in the second who’s a goth, but Samantha enjoys killing and torturing bad guys.

  10. True, and she continues to fight Victor in the beginning of the second book, and later on, though she deals with some other bad guys, and comes across Samantha Storms, a goth girl who wants to protect her loved ones and city by killing and torturing criminals though she also enjoys it, whereas StarGirl doesn’t enjoy killing or torture, but still manages to fight, though she usually rounds up the bad guys and lets the police arrest them.

  11. Michelle says:

    Wow! I’m very new to all of this. I have a theme. I have an antagonist and i know the growth of of my protagonist i want to show; how she starts, what stands in her way, where she wants to get, and how she achieves it. I very much see the importance of having it all come together. I feel like i have all these pieces lying on the floor that need to be assembled correctly. Your books Re great. I’ve got them all. Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Michelle! So great to hear that you’ve enjoyed the books and that the pieces are coming together for you. Happy writing! 😀

  12. The advice is so simple and straight forward… and so easy to lose sight of! I’m such a whiney perfectionist when it comes to plotting which leads me to losing this important storytelling goal. I’m going to post this above my computer until it sinks in. Thank you, Kim!

  13. Hey, overall great post

    I’ve read tonnes of blogs, articles etc that argue creating an interesting character is more important than an interesting plot. I think both are so important. It was great to read a few tips on how to master plots and what not to do (let’s be honest we’ve all read one of THOSE stories). Thanks for the tips, will use them wisely.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Plot and character cannot be separated. They two sides of the coin. If one is lacking, both are lacking.

  14. Is it ok if your antagonist isn’t a person or even a creature? Something like axioty or a different issue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

      However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

  15. In most of my stories the main character’s antagonist is the main character. They fight against an inner weakness or lack of resolve. There is no evil villain to defeat, even though the protagonist may have to deal with a number of unsavory characters. Instead, there are a series of conflicts that occur in which the main character’s decision (correct or incorrect) affects what happens next. The goal is to overcome the internal problem.

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