Two things you need to know right now:
- I am not a writer who outlines, so I’m coming at plotting from that perspective.
- I’m a writer who has to finish a complete draft and then go back and revise it.
So these suggestions? Not so much about knowing what’s going to happen before the story hands it over.
1) Plot out of the natural clash and meld of personalities.
I love this: it forces deep characterization, it uses all the little bits that might otherwise wind up as gratuitous “character development” that goes nowhere, and it twines character and plot together so tightly that you can’t tell them apart.
So you have Character A, we will call him Willander, and he has a fierce and deep dislike for being told what to do. At the moment, he finds himself stuck in the position of assistant to a diplomat, Character B, Lady Ashendra, because he’s told off his parents, told off his superiors at the newspaper, and irritated the Council of Mages enough that they find it amusing to stick him in a place where he’s miserable (and it helps that he’s educated in shorthand). He’s stuck on a small sailing ship where sailors are snapping at him constantly to get out of the way. Lady Ashendra is equally constantly moping over the lover she left behind. There is no one on the ship as smart as Willander, at least in his inflated opinion.
Do you really think he would be able to resist the impulse to cause trouble? And with trouble, hello, plot.
It amazes me that authors can drag breathing characters through contrived plot settings, force them into actions they would never contemplate were they of sound mind, and plunk them down into unrealistic relationships that they form against their better judgment and their habits and their souls, often with much use of “For some reason, he felt his heart flutter” and other such balderdash. Author, you have got a person here. Why not follow that person about and use his or her natural activities, likes and dislikes, and instinctive reactions to trouble to mold a plot?
I would answer that, except that I really don’t know the answer. There isn’t one. So stop forcing your characters to do things they wouldn’t do, people.
2) Know your incendiary.
This is a subset of point 1. Take a moment. Think about the cast of characters from the latest novel, or work-in-progress, or whatever it is. Who is the one person that springs to mind if you ask yourself, “Who in this book irritates the shit out of the other characters?”
I bet it didn’t take you very long to think of the name.
Incendiaries have to be used carefully, of course, or it can seem as though you’re doing stop-and-go writing, where nothing happens save when the incendiary is on stage. Once again, developed characterization will come to your rescue. There are all sorts of reasons that incendiaries might take pleasure in taunting the other characters, including but not limited to:
- Antagonistic past relationships.
- The other character offending the incendiary’s personal beliefs or morals.
- The incendiary being a loudmouth, or one of those people who cannot stop himself from making a wisecrack under any circumstances.
- The incendiary being a fish out of water, and stubbornly proclaiming that.
- The incendiary holding everyone to some set of personal standards, and the other character failing the test (for example, Willander of the first point probably feels contempt for the sailors who don’t have the same amount of university education that he’s had).
So, define why the incendiary is the way he is, what other characters he will annoy the most and why—as definite, major annoyance will probably be what you need to make a significant impact on the plot, or at least minor irritations building over a long time—and under what natural circumstances you can make them meet up. Then toss the little firebomb in.
Let the author do it right, and incendiaries aren’t only amusing and useful, but the kind of characters that your readers will get involved with, often as people they love to hate.
3) Consider what outside forces have their own goals that the protagonists’ will influence, and thus cause them to take an interest.
When the author introduces the Evil Church and the Evil Mother and the Evil City Government right away, and has them all set to oppress the protagonist, and has no other outside forces or powers or institutions defined, that’s when my little alarm bells start tinkling. I have many little alarm bells, some of them labeled “Designated Love Interest Alert,” some of them labeled, “This author knows shit-all about horses,” and some of them labeled, “Exclamation points in the narration! Watch out!”
This is the set of little alarm bells labeled, “The author has done all her world-building focused on the protagonist.”
There are people out there that your protagonist will cause things to happen to, but who will not be actively moving in an attempt to trap her/rape her/maim her/take her over/dump her broken body down a well. The moment she starts taking a position of power and prominence in the world, even if it’s just a little one, heads are going to start swinging. And I don’t mean from just gallows, either. If your protagonist becomes the head of a church, do you really believe that just the Evil Faith Across the Way will be interested? I bet you neutral faiths will be interested. I bet you that merchants who used to deliver food to the temple under her predecessor will. I bet that the mayor of her town, or the duke, or the earl, or the High Mage, or whoever else is in a non-religious position of power next door will want to invite her over for dinner and see what happens.
And some of them may decide that she’s an irritant, and not because they’re working for the Dark Lord or because they take a dislike to her shining goodness or because they’re jealous. Some of them will just be worried that she’s a hothead, that she’s too young, that she’s not going to renew their contracts, that she has stupid and unrealistic ideas about the scope of her power, that she’s a political maverick instead of a teamplayer.
And no, take your hand off the poison or the knife. I know it may astonish you, assassin-happy fantasy authors, but there are some people in the world who would not automatically try to murder their political rivals, or involve them in a war, since those kinds of things so often cause trouble, and since so many political leaders are trying to avoid trouble. They may try negotiations, gadfly-biting, distracting her, wielding economic incentives against her, exploiting personal weaknesses that will mean she’ll take just enough rope to hang herself, and so on.
Consider who else is in the universe besides your protagonist. They may be content to ignore her if she ignores them. But if she pushes, they should push back, and it’ll often as not be devoid of personal animosity. It’s just politics.
4) The ripple effect shouldn’t stop because you will it to.
Related to 3, I always get puzzled when authors assure me that certain things are going to happen because of the protagonist’s heroism, and they never do. This can include people we know about and who have opposed the protagonist from the beginning as well as neutral parties. For example, a rival could threaten to prepare a plan that exploits the hero’s personal weakness for pretty redheads, or a minor lord could get insulted by his lord’s high-handedness with him and want to challenge him to a duel.
And then those subplots go “poof!” without explanation or comment, or by means of some incredibly contrived deus ex machina, like the rival having been secretly on the protagonist’s side all along—with no hint of that given beforehand, mind—or the minor lord changing his mind for no apparent reason. The ripples spreading out from the protagonist’s actions spread only so far and halt.
What’s the fun in that? What’s the plot in that? Nothing, that’s what.
Loose ends become loose ends when the author doesn’t tie them up, doesn’t explain them, doesn’t use them as further complications, and doesn’t allow them to hurt the protagonist in any way. Until the last page, I am willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt that she might have something up her sleeve for why the consequences that should be biting the characters in the ass have not commenced the ass-biting. But if the last page passes and the subplots are just lost, I’m disappointed.
Once again, keep the plot organic, not mechanical. Don’t force consequences to go awry any more than you would force your characters into things they wouldn’t do.
5) Locate the weakest place in the interstices of your world and give it a good hard kick.
Yes, you can have everything go wrong for your characters. Yes, you can apply natural law like an avalanche coming down on people who were singing too loudly. But almost everyone knows about those. This is one I see more rarely, so it gets a mention. Of course, it also assumes that you have not written a world that exists for the sake of your protagonist—Point 3 again—and so know how things interweave and depend on each other in dense isolation, without the protagonist being able to stop or cause them. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that this one is rarer.
Look at the institutions of your world: the economic powerhouses, the politics, the history, the social movements, the government, the media, the churches, the magical organizations. Look at them good and hard. Get used to the idea of collectivization. Just as point 1 twines together character and plot, this one twines together setting and plot. You’ll have to think up relationships between groups and processes, rather than between individuals.
Do you see the fulcrum on which several of those relationships depend? Economy’s a good one for this, since trade relationships can extend between several different groups and go through several stages, like growth, preparation, transportation, sale, and consumption. Envision the stages as facets of a crystal. See the place where several facets join?
Here’s your conflict. Here’s your trouble that’s going to sweep up just about everybody. Here’s your ripple effect that’s not going to stop just because one hero says so; I bet there’s not been a spell developed that can cure not only a drought in the cornfields, but all the consequences that follow the moment that corn becomes dear. Try to think of one person solving every problem between Catholics and Protestants, or halting the Great Depression. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Know what’s delicate about your world, know how you’re going to shatter it, and then see how your hero stands in the shadow of that shattering. See what he does. Twine his actions into the setting, let them influence other people, have other people’s actions influence him, have him act again, have other things shatter that make the easiest course of action impossible, introduce a little case of Murphy’s Law, inspire some madman with a crazy idea, let one minor crisis get solved and kick off two more, and you will have a plot that’s organic, looped and growing around characters who are part of that plot, not the almighty gods of it, and a setting that breathes.
At that point, can you tell plot from character or setting, or either of them from each other?
Plots like this are one of the many, many reasons I love writing, because so often I’ve been stuck on something, and had threads from another part of the plot that I was ignoring collide in my head, introducing a much better solution than any I might have dragged into existence. Great work if you can get it.