Lesson Four: The Plot Thickens


We have learned what it means to be a writer; we’ve talked about how to use vivid imagery to make your writing more interesting and “real” for the reader; we’ve discussed characterization and how to make sure your characters are multi-dimensional by giving them both flaws and gifts, conflicts, desires, needs, fears, etc. This week, you were asked to fill out a character sheet and to use it to write a character summary or biography or autobiography.

Share your character summaries with a writing buddy. Before you start reading, tell a little bit about what worked for you with the sheets and what didn’t. Is it something you would use again? If not, what would you do instead? It is good to have lots of different tools in your writer’s toolbox, so feel free to share what works for you and what doesn’t because what works for you might work for someone else.

Ask your buddy to respond: Is there anything more you’d like to know about the character? Can you visualize the character? Do you have a sense of who he/she is? What she wants?

Now that you have some characters, you need something to happen to them. A story requires more than just a random bunch of events. Unlike life, which can seem totally random, a story has a structure. That structure is centered around a character in conflict—what can a character be in conflict with?
a. Another character (Harry Potter and Valdemort)
b. Nature (Lost on a Mountain in Maine)
c. The Spirit World (ghost stories)
d. Themselves (someone battling bulimia or cowardice or anything, really, that prevents that character from fulfilling his/her goals.)

Relationship between character and plot

James Frey in “How To Write A Damn Good Novel” says “We see who the characters are by the way they respond to such resistance; conflict highlights and exposes them. Character, not action, is what interests readers most. It is character that makes action meaningful. Story is struggle. How a character struggles reveals who he is.”

Protagonist vs Antagonist

In conflict, the protagonist is the hero and the antagonist is the “villain” though this can be a non-conscious antagonist—like the rugged terrain of a mountain. The character you created could be either. An antagonist should be as well-developed as a protagonist is. Even if it is a mountain. A mountain might not have conscious “goals” but how could you make the mountain a worthy opponent for your character? A mountain is ultimately “resistant” for one thing. It is hard to change it. It is practically immovable. It is blind to suffering of others. It is full of dangers and well as helpful elements (caves for shelter, sticks for fires, etc.). You would need to show all these many aspects to create a vivid conflict for your protagonist.

The “Crucible” or “Situation”

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating structure in a story–Plotter and Pantsters. A plotter figures out, maybe even draws a map or outline of the events that will take place in a story. A pantster puts a character in a situation and maybe has a vague idea where the story will end up, but “flies by the seat of his pants” when it comes to writing the story. BOTH ways are valid.

Stephen King is a pantster. He says, “Plot, I think, is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” His way is to start with a situation…a predicament. Into this situation he puts a character or a group of characters.

These characters reveal themselves over time…he doesn’t plan them either. They act, he records. Now I tend to think that somewhere in King’s subconscious is another part of his brain that is working all this out behind the scenes—he even refers to this “muse” as the Basement Guy. The Guy who gives him ideas. Whatever. What matters is that this is how he writes. Starts with situation. Throws in some characters. Watches to see what they do. Writes it down.

Downside to this? King has read A LOT. He’s also written a lot. He has incorporated the conventions of story (including the rhythm of plot) into his subconscious. Either that or he really has made a deal with the Devil. The rest of us may not have developed our talent to that extent and what happens when we try this is we write ourselves into corners we can’t get out of. We go down dead ends. We lose the thread of the story. It gets all tangled up and we waste time… so what do we do to compensate? Especially when we are learning?

We can be Plotters. Okay, so King thinks it is the dullard’s first choice. I love King’s characters and his stories pull me along, but guess what? We aren’t all Stephen King! There are other ways to get the action down on paper, and they are just as valid.

There are many different schemes for looking at plot or planning plot. There are outlines. There are index cards that have events that can rearranged. Story maps with bubbles and lines drawn in between connecting them are another choice. But even here, plotting away, you need the basics: A situation and at least one character.

James Frey refers to “situation” as a “crucible.” The crucible is the situation or bond that keeps the characters in conflict with each other. The important thing here is that you MUST give your characters a reason to stay in the crucible. If they could just walk away, there is no point to the story.

Once you know the character(s) and the crucible into which you will be throwing him/her/them, you ask yourself, “Where do I start the story?” A good rule of thumb is to start just before the conflict. Show the protagonist in his regular world. This is the set-up. The exposition. An explanation of what is at stake (showing rather than telling is of course more interesting). Some stories start right in the middle of the action–in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of things.” If you chose this narrative technique, you then have to show the regular world in some other way—flashbacks or recall of past events.

Next, create the moment of conflict by putting the character into the situation. Joseph Campbell was a scholar who studied stories and myths from around the world, past and present. He found many universal patterns to stories. He then wrote about these universal story elements that provide a structure and called it The Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is in his regular world and is “called to adventure.” This is the situation or conflict. The hero must then chose to accept the call and go in search of a “boon or treasure” which we could think of as reaching his goal and/or getting out of the situation and/or returning to normal life, changed in some way.

Once the character is put into a situation and decides to try to “fix the problem” (i.e. accepting the call to adventure), the action begins rising, the hero faces a series of tests which leads ultimately to the climax of the story—or the “black moment.” Here is the make or break test. The hero will succeed or be defeated. In Harry Potter, the call to adventure is when Harry is asked to go to Hogwarts, to take up magic. He had to make a decision. If he hadn’t answered the call, there wouldn’t have been a story. He did answer the call, and off he went. Along the way he had to face a number of dangers, tests. And the stakes got higher with each one. There was more to lose. More to win. Rising conflict. There were trickster characters and helpful characters and enemies. But until Valdemort or Harry was dead, they were in the crucible. Once Harry took up the fight, he had no choice of running away. Valdemort would have pursued him. Harry had to either fight or give up and die.

All the action led up to the scene in the final book where Harry defeats Valdemort. Like many hero stories, Harry “dies” and is resurrected before the true climax of the story. This gives him powers or gifts he can use–purifies him. He is then able to go on and defeat Valdemort in the climax of the story. In more classic myths, the story then continues with a “return journey” and initiation back into the regular world/society. In our modern stories, this is usually brief, but we need to see it as a resolution, a fulfillment of the story, otherwise the reader feels let down. We do see Harry returning to a “normal if magical” life. He has been changed by his experiences, but is able to love, have a family, etc.

In some stories, of course, there is no literal “death” but rather the death of a goal, death of relationship, death of a dream, etc. It appears the hero has lost the fight, but really it is a moment of passing through the worst in order to come out stronger in the end… or he is at least changed in some way that makes the point of the story. (The point of the story is called the “premise.” This is a Truth, at least for that particular story. A good example is “love conquers evil” or “dishonesty leads to ruin” or “hunger for power leads to destruction.”)

Finally, there is the return journey or falling action and resolution. Here the hero wins or loses. The ends are wrapped up. The hero returns to regular life, only he is changed, has grown, has learned something–or if the hero is dead then the world/society or those left behind are somehow changed.

How to plot your story

There are many worksheets and ideas on how to do this. You can use a stepsheet—a detailed plan for incidents in the story. Can be on notecards or simply written out in a word document or in a notebook. Write down each step— the incident, the setting, character reaction, and any growth that the character experiences.
a. Start just before the “call to adventure.” Exposition.
b. Create a conflict or situation that will test the character and allow him/her to grow and learn.
c. Rising action: Make sure that incidents arise out of character actions…not just events/incidents but also the character development. Each event further tests the character. The events occur OUT OF earlier events. Cause and effect. It is best if the characters are causing the events by their actions.
d. The climax. The final test. The hardest thing the hero has to overcome. The black moment. The make or break moment.
e. Falling action: Falling action are the events that occur after the climactic moment. This is where the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist dissolves. Someone wins. Someone loses. The hero succeeds or fails. He or she gets out of the crucible one way or the other.

Sometimes, I get confused between climax and falling action and think of it this way: The climax is the moment when everything is suspended in balance. Things could go either way. Falling action is when things have started going one way or the other in such a way that the outcome is inevitable as well as the events that follow.

In the THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the climax is when Frodo is trying to get himself to toss that ring into the pit. The forces of evil are gathered around the good guys. It could go either way, right? Then the ring (along with Gollum) goes into the lava–the falling action is showing Frodo and Sam escaping the cave, the evil forces disintegrating, etc.

In the climax and falling action parts of the story, a good idea for a writer is to try to create a surprise for the reader. Readers also appreciate a sense of justice being served. Life, in its randomness, does not always deal fairly. A story really should, unless the point of the story is the pointlessness of life. Consider your premise. What is true for your story? How will you “prove” it?

f. Resolution: Wrapping up any loose ends, show the “new” order of things or the hero going back to his regular world only with new knowledge or skills or understanding, etc.


Exposition–Protagonist in regular world:

Call to Adventure/Conflict/Situation:

Rising Action:




Falling Action:





Once you have plotted your story and have your character summaries done, the next step is to actually write the story using vivid details and clear language so that your readers can be pulled into the story. This week, using the characters you’ve already created or some new ones, either a)plot an entire story and write it or b)come up with a situation and write with the plot elements (exposition, conflict, rising action, etc.) in the back of your mind and entire story. Our final class next week will mainly be reading our stories and responding to them based on what we’ve learned about details, character, and plot elements. Is the reader drawn into the world of the protagonist? Is the conflict or situation one in which holds the character in a crucible? Do we have a clear sense of who the characters are and what they want? Does the action rise in such a way to keep us wondering what will happen? Are there any surprises or feelings of justice in the climax and falling action? Does the resolution feel “finished” and satisfying?

Good luck with your writing this week. I look forward to hearing your stories!


ON WRITING by Stephen King
BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

Websites about the Hero’s Journey researched by Joseph Campbell

Websites about Plot Elements


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