This post is the second in a six-weeks series from Andrea Custer and Tips For Teen Authors.
What Happens to Those Characters you Created?
Now that you have a sense of who your protagonist and antagonist will be, it’s time to think about what’s going to happen to them over the course of the story. The easiest way to do that? Keep these two metaphors in mind: A good plot sequence is like a precise domino set-up and like a freight train.
Just like how one tap to a well-planned domino set-up will knock down the entire thing, well-planned plot is one where each plot point “hits” the next one. What we’re talking about here in cause and effect. You may have heard the writing advice to start your story with an “inciting incident” - that is the tap to the first domino that gets the whole thing started.
Let’s say your inciting incident is a knock on the door, and when your protagonist opens it s/he learns their parent, a member of the military who is currently deployed, has gone missing. Learning that information is going to cause the protagonist to do things, maybe having to do with finding their missing parent, maybe having to do with grief and coping. What they do depends on the type of story you are telling, but whatever it is, it will have a specific effect on the plot.
For example, when they learn their parent was missing, the protagonist decides to send an email to another member of their parent’s unit, asking for information.
Cause: learned parent missing; Effect: sends email searching for information
What if the person in the parent’s unit responds, but their email is cryptic?
Cause: sent email; Effect: evasive response stokes suspicion.
You want this “causality” to link each happening in your plot structure together.
The Freight Train
Plot is always a forward-moving thing, just like a freight train. (For those of you thinking, But wait! Backstory?!, hold that thought - we’ll get to it a few posts from now). This story is a journey, just like you would take on a train. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it never goes in reverse. Everything that happens propels the story to the next place - the characters can’t ever go back and pretend they haven’t had the experiences they’ve had, learned the things they’ve learned, or done the things they’ve done. Using the example from above, after getting a cryptic response to their email, your protagonist can’t wake up the next day and not have their parent’s well-being on their mind.
But, Help! How Do I Actually Do This?
The actual act of mapping out your plot points can seem quite daunting. The good news is that there are a lot of tools out there that offer help in a variety of different ways. I’ve given a brief sketch of some of them below. No one of these methods is better than another, it’s just a matter of what works for you and complements how you think of story structure. You can also use more than one. You may start with the Pixar structure, and then use the Six Stage structure as a plot-check before you revise, etc.
Pixar Story Structure - If you search “Pixar Story Structure” you should see a number of links that all reiterate the same basic formula. In a nutshell, it’s this:
Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, ______. One day ____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____ (repeats as much as necessary). Until finally _____.
The Three Act Structure - Again, a search of “three act structure,” you give you plenty of links about how to frame a plot using this common screenwriting framework. At its core, the three acts are beginning, middle, and end. In its simplest form:
Act one (first quarter of the story) includes the opening scene, inciting incident, and establishes the main story problem. Act two (two quarters of the story) is the protagonist trying, but failing, to solve the problem, and eventually brought to the point of considering giving up. Act three (final quarter) shows the protagonist using what they’ve learned, resolving to face the challenge, and ultimately overcoming all obstacles.
Hero’s Journey - This one you may be familiar with from English class, but if not, the internet is your friend. You can also check the local library for Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” or Christopher Vogler's “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” The quick version:
1. Ordinary world; 2. Call to adventure; 3. Refusal of the call; 4. Meeting the mentor; 5. Crossing the threshold; 6. Tests, allies, enemies; 7. Doubt and fear (the inmost cave); 8. Ordeal; 9. Reward; 10. The road back; 11. Resurrection; and 12. Return with the elixir.
In the earlier post on developing your protagonist, I briefly mentioned that your main character is going to have an outer journey (the plot actions you’re developing now) and an inner journey (how the protagonist is changed by what they’re experiencing - their emotional arc). Once you have a general sense of what your plot points are going to be, map them out. I use butcher paper and post-it notes to do this in a classic story arc pattern - a line angled up until it hits a “crisis” point, then dropping suddenly to a “dark night of the soul” moment, followed by rapid incline to the “climax” of the story. Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master has a great tutorial on how to do this.
Once you have post-its on that incline for each of your plot points (using the example above, you would have a post it for “learns parent is MIA”, “sends email to buddy”, “gets suspicious reply”, and so on), pick a different color post-it, and layer in the emotional beat that accompanies each moment. How does your character feel when they learn their parent is missing? It could be “I was always afraid this was going to happen”, or “but s/he promised me they’d be safe”, or betrayal because the parent told the protagonist they’d be stationed somewhere else entirely. Expect that as you focus on the inner/emotional story you will learn things about the character that cause you to adjust what you thought their need, want, flaw, strength, or gift was. Allow yourself to go with the flow of this, and use anything that comes up to deepen your character’s goals, and make their emotional life more robust.
Sounds easy, right? It can be, if you just take it step-by-step, and stick with it. If you have questions or would like more in-depth information about any of the plot structure tools, you can email me at TipsForTeenAuthors@gmail.com, or ask them in our Facebook group, facebook.com/groups/T4TAWritingCommunity.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.