“Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are…something is bound to happen. …Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. …Let what they say or do reveal who they are.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 1994)

All stories, no matter their length, have the same basic structure of beginning, the build to a climax, and the end that ties it all together and leaves the reader with some sense of satisfaction. These elements make up the plot. If you don’t have these three elements then you have a vignette, not a true story. Vignettes can have their place, but our focus in this workshop is a full story. We’ll discuss the beginning more fully in Lesson 8, and the climax in Lesson 9.

By now you should know your protagonist very well from the character profile you created in Lesson 3. You should know what her deepest, most overwhelming desire is. In order to create a plot and the tension that will lead to the climax of your story, put an obstacle in her way of reaching that desire (the antagonist, for instance), then let her guide you in her drive to achieve it—this will show you the plot.

If your female character’s deepest desire is to have a storybook happy marriage, what would happen if she found out her husband has been cheating on her? How would she deal with this news?

If your male character’s deepest desire is to completely exterminate an alien race that’s invading Earth, how would he react to the government declaring him an enemy of the state and trying to kill him?

If you’re stuck for a plot idea—if you have a solid character you really like but aren’t sure what his driving desire is—start writing short stories about him. Put him in different situations and see how he reacts. Chances are a plot will emerge from one of these stories.

Exercise 1

Create a basic outline for your story arc. For some helpful advice on creating an outline see this NaNoWriMo blog post about a subway map outlining method, and this one for pantsers.

Exercise 2

Write a background story that sets up your plot. An example of this: The Lord of the Rings story revolves around the One Ring, its significance, and how it’s destroyed. But how did Bilbo Baggins get the One Ring in the first place? That background story is in The Hobbit.

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