Plot Better Stories

Cause and Effect

To plot your story or novel means to order your story events into a plausible cause and effect pattern, preferably one that holds a reader’s interest from start to finish. In fiction of any length, plotting refers to the order in which events unfold. 

  1. What happens first?
  2. What happens next, as a result of the first event?
  3. Then what happens?

But this isn't all. Imagine a fictional character that gets up in the morning, eats a breakfast of cereal, gets hungry later at work, goes to the lunchroom and makes a sandwich, returns to her fictional cubicle and spills mustard on her fictional keyboard, etc.

This series of story events happens logically, as a result of cause and effect, but how much of this could you stand to read? Probably not much!

Interesting Story Events

For a plot to work, story events must be interesting, a little out of the ordinary, so readers don’'t get bored. And to keep things interesting, show the characters in ACTION, rather than tell about what they do.

To “show” doesn'’t always mean real-time action and dialogue. It means you provide enough sensory details that you put the reader inside or beside the character to see, feel, smell, taste, and hear whatever happens.

Dissimilar Events

Nevertheless, even when you order interesting, sensory events according to cause and effect in your fiction, you still may lose reader interest because good plots require that each event is unique. Each scene must move the story forward and show something about the character or situation the reader doesn't already know.

Think about it. How much do you enjoy a story you've heard before, even if the details vary? Readers can only take so much of a good thing. Otherwise it’s like driving through the prairies, a long, flat, journey. The scenery is lovely, but there's not much to keep you awake.


Related to dissimilar events, but different, is the need for change. Fictional events need to change and characters need to change, too. Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy in Poetics, discusses a “reversal of the situation” which causes a dramatic change in the character’s fortune. This reversal, he wrote, should surprise the audience by running contrary to their expectation, and yet be the necessary outcome of events.

I consider that sort of fictional reversal the ideal, but even if you don't manage a surprise, character change is necessary. If a character starts the story as a selfish prig, he had better not be one by the end of the story. Characters are meant to grow and change. The same with situations. If a scene starts off on a positive note, it should end on a negative. If it begins on a negative, it should end more positively. This is not to say that every scene needs this structure, but change helps to hold reader interest.


Fiction needs problems, too. Ask someone about that drive across Saskatchewan. You’ll be interested in the beautiful fields of wheat and the wide, open skies for a while, but what happens if their story is consistently pleasant, one interesting but happy event after another for an hour or more without stop? I suspect it would be a real snooze fest!

What if, just as you’re just about to nod off, they instead tell you about a tornado that touched down alongside the highway? Or even a dust storm that obscured the road? How about a bee in the car? A fight with a spouse? A flat tire fifty miles from that next town they can see in the distance?

Even the smallest of those problems will hold your attention for a bit because the complication raises questions for you. What did they do? How bad was it? Was anyone hurt? You don’t want to be left hanging, and neither do readers. They want to know what happened. This is the role of the fictional complication—to raise reader interest and provide a reason to keep reading.


Finally, the story needs surprises. Imagine that long, flat road again. A few curves break up the monotony. Aristotle’s reversal allows for one surprising twist, his idea of “recognition,” allowed for another big change, followed by what he called a “tragic incident.” So two surprises and a climax. Most short stories rely on a single turn and a climax, but novels use two. That’s the basic pattern that playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters have been using forever. Watch all but the most experimental film and you will see definite turns in the plot at specific points.

The first will happen around the thirty-minute mark, the next at about an hour (this is where a couple is most likely to kiss for the first time, or end up in bed together). Look for the final turn twenty or thirty minutes later. If you haven't already noticed this, take a break, watch a few films, and see for yourself. A solid understanding of plot in film can make planning the sequence of events in a story or novel that much easier.

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