A Plot Begins With a Problem
This problem can come in many forms. It could be:
- An unfilled desire: a character-centered story may start with a character that wants to see the world, or one who feels lonely and yearns for some company.
- An incoming threat: perhaps an alien invasion has begun, or a plague has just been released on the populace.
- An unanswered question: perhaps the royal palace mysteriously disappeared, or no one knows why strange markings are appearing at intersections.
Whatever it is, the problem must feel unresolved, or unfinished. The audience will anticipate the resolution, and that expectation forms the throughline of the story.
You cannot create the problem just by withholding information from the audience. “Why are the characters doing that?” is not a story problem; it’s audience confusion. However, if you have a protagonist that is wondering “why are they doing that?” then it can be the story problem.
You can start telling the story years after the appearance of the problem, but anything that comes before it is strictly prologue.
If your story is about a servant who gets up early in the morning, eats gruel, and is ordered around by his master, that by itself does not form a story opening. The servant might be satisfied with his lot, or even grateful because it’s better than digging in the mines. To create the story problem, you must communicate to your audience that change is necessary or inevitable. Perhaps he’s unhappy being a servant, and he dreams of a better life. Or he’s currently satisfied, but his master plans to oust him, and then he’ll have to work in the mines.
Now the audience can feel something coming, and will stick around to see the servant better his lot or avoid being sent away.
Then There’s a Proactive Character
For events to be a story, there must be at least one character who makes choices based on a goal they have. Their goal doesn’t have to be to address the story problem. In fact, their goal might shift several times. But their goal must mean something to them.
This character cannot just sit back and watch things happen, or follow along with what everyone else is doing. This character must think things through on their own, and make their own decisions. The decisions they make must influence the outcome of the story in a significant way.
Perhaps the story is about a girl named Sally. When Sally wakes up one morning, there’s a strange eye on the back of her left hand. Her mother sees it and sends her to the doctor. The doctor sees it and sends her to a specialist, but cultists kidnap her before she gets there. While at the cult headquarters, a demon emerges from her hand. Then Sally wakes up in her bed, and the eye is gone. She thinks it’s all a dream, until she looks out her window and finds that most of her home town has been destroyed.
That’s not a story, because there isn’t a protagonist who influences it significantly. Sally needs to steer the direction of events. She could go to the doctor herself, and then decide to hear what the cultists have to say when they tell her they know what’s happening. Then she could preform a simple ritual to extract the demon from her hand. Alternately, the story could focus on her mother and the cultists, as they battle over Sally’s fate and the demon in her. Regardless, the focus must be on one or more characters that make purposeful actions, and those purposeful actions must lead to the resolution of the story problem.
That Character Must Face a Conflict
The character must be confronted by an antagonist that threatens their immediate goals. This antagonist doesn’t have to be another character; it could be a natural threat, or an internal deterrent like doubt or fear.
The protagonist and antagonist will engage in a conflict over the character’s immediate goals. Regardless of what form the antagonist is in, it must have a reasonable chance of winning this conflict. Otherwise it isn’t a conflict – it’s just flavor text.
Tom is angry and really wants to destroy an anthill. He goes for a walk and finds one, then starts kicking and stomping. The ants are strangely blue in color; they line up and march against him in formation. Then he stomps on the formation, squishing them all. Satisfied with the carnage, he goes home.
That’s not plot, because there’s no conflict. The ants had no chance of winning, and there was never a threat to Tom and his goal of ant massacre. This can be fixed by giving the ants a chance of winning. The ants could be surprisingly strong, knocking Tom over and carrying him into a new, human-sized hole in the ground. Tom becomes terrified before he manages to free himself with desperate thrashing. Alternatively, Tom might see the oddly human behavior of the ants and feel remorseful about what he’s doing, and this internal conflict causes him to change his mind about destroying the colony. Either way, the story has two likely outcomes.
The Conflict Must Have Consequences
The conflict is there to provide a branching point in the story. That’s why it must have multiple likely outcomes, and those outcomes must make a meaningful difference to the character. In other words, there must be consequences if the protagonist loses the conflict.
Not just any consequences, but ones that significantly threaten the goals of the protagonist. If failure only creates a nuisance or a short delay in reaching their goal, the conflict becomes meaningless.
It’s also important for the consequences to appear immediately afterwards. If it’s later, then it’s not a conflict; it’s foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is great, but it can’t replace conflict.
Melody is a new assassin trying to take out her first mark, an evil count. First she poisons the count. However, it turns out he’s immune to the poison and doesn’t even notice. Then she sneaks up behind him and stabs him in the back. He winces, but just removes the knife and keeps walking. Finally, she finds his coffin, drags him outside, and exposes him to sunlight. He burns to a crisp.
Nope, not plot. The conflicts are meaningless because there isn’t a significant penalty for failure – Melody can just try again later. There are many ways to penalize her for failing:
- The count could realize she’s after him, and go to extra lengths to protect himself. Her job would become much harder.
- The attempt could become public knowledge, creating a political fiasco.
- The count could drain another innocent dry that night, someone that would have lived if she’d succeeded.
Whatever the penalty, it must damage Melody’s chance of reaching her goal. If she isn’t involved in politics, she won’t care if there’s a political fiasco. But if she needs the death to look natural, a public assassination attempt would be a big problem.
Finally, the Problem Must Be Resolved
Intentionally or unintentionally, one or more characters will resolve the problem that opened the story. They will find the answer to the question, deal with the incoming threat, or satisfy the unfilled desire. Or they will confidently conclude that the problem will never be resolved, which is a resolution in itself. However the story concludes, it must have a sense of finality.
That’s when the story is finished. Everything after that is effectively epilogue.
Let’s say your story is about a slave that longs for freedom. He might decide he’s going to run away, make arrangements with someone who can help him, forge a certificate that states he is a free man, and sneak out the door one night. Though he’s technically free after he sneaks away, it doesn’t end the story, because it isn’t final. Your audience knows he could be captured soon after; his forgery might be detected, or his old masters might find him. There needs to be some assurance that he will remain free, perhaps because:
- slavery is abolished.
- a powerful figure grants him freedom.
- he is beyond the reach of anyone who might capture him.
Once any of these occur, the story is done. If his masters show up after this conclusion looking for him, it will be a problem for the sequel.