Debbie Lee Wesselmann


Tips for Creating a Compelling Plot

Except for some select experimental works, every piece of fiction requires a story, or plot.  The complexity of this plot is determined by both the writer and the genre.  For example, a thriller is always plot-driven, requiring an intricate story with twists and unexpected complications, while a literary novel can center on a much more straightforward plot that is subservient to character, language, and theme.  No matter the genre, however, the story is what draws the reader into the writer’s fictional world.  I’ve provided a few guidelines to help you succeed with your story.

1.  Plot is all about conflict, and conflict is all about denial. Know what your protagonist wants, and throw in obstacles that prevent him from attaining it.  Without a sustainable conflict, a story becomes boring.

2.  Choose a story that interests you, not one that you create because you think it will sell.  It’s obvious when an author has nothing invested in the plot.

3. Let the plot unfold naturally –– that is, without the obvious hand of the author at work.  One scene should logically lead to the next, even though chronologically the scenes may be out of order. A writer who tries to force the plot to satisfy his intellectual vision will always fail.

4. Each scene should complicate the conflict, and thus move the plot forward. If the conflict never changes, then the story will feel repetitive.

5.  Your character should contribute to the plot development.  Don’t let events happen to them.  Make them change events through their actions and personalities.

6. Often a story intrigues readers because of the way it is told .  Think about your plot.  Can you arrive at an unusual and fitting way to tell it?  Your chosen technique should be compatible with your plot, characters, and theme, and should stand as a unique choice.

7. Your story should have a logical progression or momentum, but does not need to be told in a linear manner.   You may skip forward or back in time as long as each section nudges the story toward its conclusion.  Beginning writers often tell their stories in the simplest, most straight-forward manner which, while competent enough, might miss out on the potential richness of the tale. Sometimes a story demands chronological storytelling, while other times such a method is too mundane. Whichever method you choose, make sure your story has an internal logic that takes the reader through the steps of discovery, from first sentence to last.

8. Simple plots can be as suspenseful as complex ones.  It's the passion behind the situation and what's at stake for the characters that will hold your readers' attention.  Of course, certain genres require plot complexity, but even in the case of mystery novels, overburdening the work with plot can be counterproductive.  Find the heart of your story and concentrate on it, with all its implications and subtleties and details. 

9. The resolution need not be tidy.  In fact, it should not be. You want to suggest that your characters will continue to exist after the story has ended, thus lending greater realism.  Much more important, and admittedly more difficult, is emotional resolution.  An emotional resolution gives the reader a sense of satisfaction while sparing him from the neat package of artificial reality.  Your main character should show signs that he has moved on from, or will triumph over, his primary emotional conflict even if he faces many future conflicts as a result.

10. Although plot is important, don't neglect other aspects of fiction - character, setting, theme.  A short story can be overburdened with a complicated plot, leaving nothing behind to embrace.  And a novel can be thin and without consequence if not expanded with believable characters, setting, and ideas.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann