SANDRA CAREY CODY ON: PLOT
I’ve posted a couple of times about creating characters, my favorite part of writing. I could fill several notebooks with sketches of the people who inhabit my imagination. That part is pure fun but, if I’m going to tell a story, I have to give these people something to do. In other words, I need a plot. For me, that’s the … I was going to say the hardest part … but let’s be positive and call it the biggest challenge. What do I do when faced with such a challenge? Break it down. Look at the basics. What is a plot? My trusty Webster’s defines it as “the plan of action of a play, novel, etc.”
It’s the planning that gives me trouble but, as I’ve said before, if I do a good job on the characters, it’s a little easier. I created these people. I know their secrets, what they’re afraid of, what they love and what they hate. So I should know how they will react in any situation, and those reactions are what move the story along. Sounds easy, right? All I have to do is give them something to react to, a problem to solve or a goal to achieve – and a reason to care about the problem or goal.
Something has to happen and it has to be strong enough to compel the protagonist to act. Going back to Webster, I plan the action and, thus, the plot begins. This is true not just for mysteries, but for all fiction. Think of your favorite half dozen stories in any genre. The first chapters may be wildly different, but they surely have one thing in common: something happens or is foreshadowed as about to happen that will change life for the hero. He’s about to embark on a journey that will take him to places he never expected to go, to do things he never suspected he was capable of doing.
Now I have a beginning. On to the middle. The middle is all about the character’s response to the problem placed before him in the beginning and the new problems resulting from that response. It’s about choices and the consequences of those choices. It’s about overcoming obstacles. By the middle of the book, the hero’s life is usually in chaos. Real life may be random, but in fiction, if the reader is to suspend disbelief, he needs to see the cause and effect behind the chaos. Events in the plot may (and at least sometimes should) surprise the reader, but once they occur, he needs to understand why. So I invent a series of actions that show my character’s responses to the problems set in motion by the inciting incident and are linked by cause and effect. Once I’ve done that, I have my middle.
And, finally, after much travail and turmoil for both me and my hero, I come to the end. How is the problem resolved? How has the resolution changed my hero? Did he achieve his goal? Or come to accept that he could not and learn to live with that? Or, like Scarlett O’Hara, did he vow to worry about it tomorrow? And, most important, have I been fair to the reader? Have I entertained him and made the time spent with my story worthwhile? That’s my goal as a writer – always.