Chris, you're usually full of good advice. Maybe you can help me with this: my plots suck. I've got a handle on pretty much everything else and I come up with ideas that excite me, but I never seem to be able to make them interesting on the page. I keep reading that writing is about conflict, but my stakes never seem to be high enough and my lows never seem to be low enough. I have the innate ability to make an awesome concept look ho-hum.
Is there some magical advice that will fix this for me or should I quit writing and become an accountant?
I don't know about the horrors that will be unleashed if a bunch of writers try to become accountants, but I'm afraid there isn't much magical advice.
One of the first orders of business when I get my life back from the clutches of the ravenous 17 month old is going to be to get back on track with the Elements of Craft posts that I was doing when I had a little more time. From what I understand, I should have some free time in about JUUUUUUUUUUUUST about sixteen years and seven months longer. So don't touch that dial.
But in the meantime, maybe I can hit the highlight reel and give you is some shitty, mundane advice and we'll just have to hope that it does just enough good to not inadvertently trigger a plague of creatively written tax filings. ("It was the best of returns. It was the worst of returns.")
The basic problem with plot is that people have a problem with the basics. I know that sounds trite, and maybe like something The Sphinx would tell you while you balance a tack hammer on your head, but it's true. You never really learn how to write plots in school. You sort of learn how to summarize them when you do book reports, but even when you are doing creative writing, there is rarely a lot of time spent on craft. Everyone wants to do the flourishes and the complicated plots with the multi-character entwining arcs but not a lot of people admit that they might need to think about the very basics.
Let's start with the super basics: the upside down checkmark. I always think this is just too easy and too basic, but then I'm shocked at how many people have never really seen or heard it before. Or even more common, they have seen it before in their literature classes, but didn't realize that it's a way to write good stories too.
|No really, it's a checkmark.|
Stand on your head if you don't believe me.
This is the structure of a story. Now...this is the very basic structure, and writers play with it all the time especially by putting these parts of the story out of the order you see here, but if you're having trouble with plot, the best thing you can do is to go back to the basics. There are also things called complications that happen between the rising action and the climax in longer stories.
Exposition: It's a galaxy far far away. There's a war. Luke wants to join the rebellion. The droids have the plans. This dude with the black, penis-shaped head is not very nice.
Rising Action: Various actions are taken to first get Obi Wan and then get the plans to the rebellion then help the rebellion because seriously, these Empire guys are grade-A assholes.
Complications: (Not in the picture) Alderaan has been blown up. The gang gets captured. The Falcon was let go and is being tracked. The Death Star is coming for THEM!
Climax: A group of thirty or so one-man fighters take on a space station the size of a moon. Special effects like woah. John Williams in top form. Everyone is dead. It's just you and the not-a-euphamism dickhead. Unless....
Falling Action: Luke flies away while everyone says, "Wow, we pretty much thought we were fronting. Way to be, Luke." Turns out getting shot by ship turbolasers isn't good for droids.
Resolution (also called the "denouement" by readish types): Everyone who's NOT the two white guys says "No, it's cool. We didn't want medals anyway."
What I can't stress enough is that if you're having trouble with this structure, to use it like a formula. When you first start writing essays, you don't mess with implied theses and extended introductions. When you first start writing essays, you write a five paragraph essay (with a thesis as the last sentence of the first paragraph, three body paragraphs, each with a topic sentence that ties it back to the thesis, and a conclusion that rewords the introduction in a slightly different way). It's formulaic but you're just starting. Later on you mess with the structure, add in more examples, put your thesis statement in the conclusion, have your conclusion talk about the bigger picture, and basically flourish. Well we may have learned how to write essays in school, and had a lot of practice at that, but very few of us have learned how to write a story.
Write some stories with the upside down checkmark and consider either making them strong examples of a basic structure (there are plenty of those–not everything breaks the rules) or try to flaunt your mad writing skillz in a later revision.
Next up: let's talk about having your character want something. I'm going to direct you to an older article here: Watching Disney Movies as a Writer. It's going to tell you all about characters who need something and how that drives plot. Short version: while there are ways to communicate what a character wants without just saying so, the basics might mean having your character just say it outright. "I want to win the race/own a restaurant/be Andy's favorite toy/not be lonely anymore." Disney movies may be formulaic, but they're good because they're formulaic, and too many writers need to learn the damned formula.
Again, the important thing here is that even if you take the explicit statement off the page, you know what your characters want. Even if it's just to get across the room and get a glass of water. It has to drive them to action. In a good story, characters are moving the plot forward (character driven). In a shitty story, plot is moving the characters forward. Characters that just react to external things happening make for boring characters (and shitty plots).
Consider how–even as a formulaic and simple-as-shit the movie is–episode 4 of Star Wars is so much better than episode 1. In episode 4 you can tell what characters want right away. Vader wants the plans. Luke wants to leave the farm. Han wants money. Leia wants the rebellion to succeed. Some of their wants change, but their choices and actions drive the plot. Episode 1, on the other hand is just a train wreck of characters reacting to one thing after another that happens TO them. About the only choice that is made is the training of young Anakin, and it is (naturally) the most important, critical, and compelling thing about the whole movie.
What gets tricky is that every character needs to have a motivation. The plot comes from the entanglement of these different motivations and some people even working against each other. These wants don't have to be complicated; they just have to drive the character to take action instead of just reacting to life. The characters need to be an agent affecting their own destiny not an object of fate.
Let's look at Cars. Lightning McQueen wants to WIN. Mater wants a friend. Doc Hudson wants a quiet retirement. Sally wants Radiator Springs to be great again. It is the interaction between all these people working to get what they want that drives the story forward. Not ONE external plot point happens in Cars after Mack gets pushed off the road. And even that could be argued as character driven (Heh heh. Get it? Driven? They're cars. Never mind) since the cars that do it are acting out their own chaotic motivations. Everything after that has to do with the characters' desires interplaying with each other.
Cars is also a great example of how "what a character wants" and "what a character needs" are often two different things and how powerful a story can be when a character actually does not get what they want.
As an aside, this is one of the reasons that so many men have a hard time writing women characters. This is also (grammatically) where the term "objectification" comes from. Women in so many stories are what men want, and are given to them (or not) almost as a reward. They are the "object" of the action, not the agent. ("He pursued her." "He rescued her." "He impressed her." "He fucked her.") But what do the women want? Do they have their own goals? Their own motivations? In most of the stories we are bombarded with, they do not. Strong female characters do not have to be leather wearing ass-kickers; they just have to have their own wants and pursue them like an active agent–as if they were the main characters of their own stories. ("She wanted a relationship, but not at the expense of her career." "She rescued him." "She wanted to defeat the empire." "She wanted to pound it into clueless dudes that it was not radical to want to be paid the same as a man.")
Our next idea is the potential for change. This isn't a complicated idea that I will need to spell out for several paragraphs. It's pretty basic. A good character arc (which means a good plot arc) involves the capacity for change. No matter how outgunned and how outmanned your rag tag team is against the horrible endless armies of Chitauri or Ultron clones, and no matter how bad the external situation looks, the forces conflicting within your character should be balanced and roughly equal. Whether it is loyalty vs. friendship, duty vs. desire, selfishness vs. selflessness...whatever.
A good character arc includes the capacity for change. The climax of a character arc is whether the character changes or does not. But in order to be a good character arc, there has to at least be the potential for change and that climactic moment where it either happens or doesn't.
One of the reasons people like Han so much more than Luke (in Star Wars) is that Luke never had a moment of real change. He was good to fight for the rebellion the entire story. He was always all in. There was never any moment where we doubted what he'd do. (The closest he comes to that is trusting The Force instead of his targeting computer at the end.) Han had this moment where duty vs. desire conflicted and he had to choose if he wanted money or to help the rebels and his friends. People started to like Luke only after he faces a moment where he has to basically lose a fight in order to remain a Jedi.
Lastly, let's talk about stakes. Stakes don't have to be big to be dramatic.
Let me say that again: stakes don't have to be big to be dramatic.
In fact, some of the best literature has stakes no higher than one person's potential heartbreak. That's pretty weak sauce compared to the fate of the universe or a planet about to be destroyed or even one person's life. So don't think you have to raise the stakes in order to raise the drama, you just have to keep the stakes present and the reader aware of them. We must remember the cost of the character's failure, whether it is the destruction of all life, the end of the rebellion, or that someone is going to have to have a whole pizza and a quart of ice cream and then reluctantly get back into the dating scene.
A very good story could be written about a character who wants to get a glass of water, but meets up with their partner on the way to the kitchen. Their partner (because they have their own set of desires and are not just an obstacle object in the main character's story) wants to talk about their relationship right now.
"Stop stalling. I know you're not really thirsty. We need to talk. I'm serious. If you drink so much as a drop of water, I'm walking out that door!"
So this person is increasingly answering big important questions™ with just the aim of getting the conversation over so they can quench their growing, uncomfortable thirst, and basically torpedoing their relationship, so they can have a glass of water. We know what's happening. We've all been thirsty. Most of us have been so thirsty we couldn't think straight. This is drama. This would make a potentially fine story, and the stakes for the character's wants are only getting some water. (Although if the character doesn't get what they want, the stakes might involve their relationship too.)
Stakes don't have to be big to be dramatic.
Those are the basics of plot. There are some flourishes, of course, but most people need to get down the fundamentals.