A lot has been written on plot and whether you even need one. Stephen King argued in On Writing that you don’t need a plot as much as good characters and an interesting premise. He’s a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy. That surprised me. I wrote my first book that way, and I can’t say I was a fan of that model. Not only is it stressful, but I think my lack of direction showed. For my second and third novels, I’ve had at least an outline and sketched out the major themes I wanted to cover. The first drafts of those two have gone much smoother.
I’ve been reading a few books lately by authors who do like a plot with more structure. I’ll be doing a Ten Tips on James Scott Bell’s book on plot, but once again, the most helpful resource so far has been Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I swear, this the last post on it, and I’ll shut up, but only if you promise to read the whole thing.
OSC maintains that most stories follow one of the following four models (MICE):
Milieu: The story begins when you enter a strange land. It ends when you leave. The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels
Idea: The story begins by raising a question. It ends when the question is answered. Sherlock Holmes and nearly every other mystery
Character: This story is about transformation. It begins when the main character becomes so unhappy in his present role that he begins the process of change. It ends when the character either settles into a new role or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and most coming of age stories
Event: The world is out of order. This story begins not when the disorder starts, but when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. It ends when a new order is established, the old order is restored, or the world descends into chaos and order is destroyed. Lord of the Rings and a kagillion other epic fantasies
The most important point to remember in plotting is to finish the story you started. If you begin your story one way and end it another, you’ll frustrate your readers. Imagine if instead of solving the murder (idea), Holmes decided half way through to check into rehab, and the end of the book was about him conquering addiction (character). Bully for Holmes, but I want to know if the butler did it. Likewise, how frustrating would Return of the King have been if Frodo decided instead of finishing his quest to destroy the ring (event), that after meeting Gollum he’d had enough adventure and headed back to his hobbit hole (milieu)?
Up Next: Ten Tips from James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure