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Pumping Up the Plot (Part 1): 6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

"Elementary, my dear Watson: We want to pump you up!"

So you’re good at coming up with interesting characters. Or maybe you can describe a freshly mowed lawn right down to the chopped up tennis balls and cut-grass-mixed-with-dog-poop smell. But if all your writing mojo turns to Jello as soon as someone mentions the word “plot,” here’s a little something that might help: the 6 most important vital signs for a healthy plot.

Use this list if you’re struggling to come up with a plot and don’t have a clue where to start. Or use it to double-check an idea for a plot, see if it’s likely to go the distance or leave you stranded.

6 Vital Signs of A Healthy Plot

1. WANT / DESIRE: This is the lifeblood of plot. If you can’t identify what your character wants, you have no plot. If you know intellectually what your character wants, but don’t necessarily feel it, then you might have a plot—but probably not the strongest one.

What you want is to feel in your gut the ache or hunger or desire your character has for a particular person, thing, or course of action. Then you’ve got the beginnings of a great plot.

2. OBSTACLES: Figure out who or what stands in the way of what your character wants. If she/he can get what they want easily, you have no plot. If he/she cannot get it easily, but you’re not quite sure what the obstacle is, then you have a plot, but it’s still too vague. Sharpen and refine until you know exactly what the “wall” is.

3. TENSION: Want + Obstacles = Tension. If you can’t feel the tension, then you haven’t fully identified what your characters want or what the obstacles are. Go back and work on Vital Signs 1 and 2.

4. OPPORTUNITY: Your characters have to believe they can get what they want (even if it’s impossible). Otherwise, they have no reason to act. Make sure you give them some chance (real or imagined) to succeed, even if you snatch it away from them in the end.

5. SURPRISES / CHANGES: Only two types of plots are allowed to unfold in a straight line: boring ones and new ones. Since there are no new plots, and you probably don’t want your story to be boring, you should always be looking for twists and turns, unexpected challenges and surprises as you write. These are the touches that differentiate a simple plot from a complex one, and turn an ordinary novel into a page-turner. (Plus, they can make a story or novel a lot more fun to write.)

6. RESOLUTION: You don’t have to know exactly how your story’s going to end before you write it. And you can have whatever resolution you think is best: positive, negative, neutral, ambiguous, etc. But if you don’t have some kind of feeling for where the character’s want is going to lead him/her, what kinds of futures are possible for that character given his/her desires and the obstacles presented, your plot is going to lose direction.  “Starts out strong, but loses steam”—that’s the epitaph for novels written with no resolution in mind.

NEXT WEEK:  Pumping Up the Plot (Part 2) — 5 Exercises to Boost Your Plot-Writing Mojo

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