On Selecting Plot Points

Athens, Sheila color photo cropped~ By Sheila Athens

When the chapter leadership said they wanted blog posts on craft, I immediately thought about the topic of deciding which plot points to include in a novel.   To me, this is a critical element—and one I struggled with early in my writing apprenticeship.

Deciding which plot points to include in a novel is very much a part of structure and structure is the foundation of any novel.  Some people think of it as the bones or skeleton of the novel.  I think of it as the hanger from which all the other “clothes” of the novel hang.

The reason I struggled with this element when I first started writing is because I naively believed that true writers woke up with fully-formed novel-length stories inside their heads.  As much as I wanted to be a writer, I thought I was missing that critical part of DNA that allowed me to do that.

Luckily, I learned that all writers “build” a story, much like a child would build a house out of blocks.  Those who plot before writing generally know where they will start and where they will end.  They brainstorm and noodle and fold towels and take showers and walk the dog and noodle some more until at least two turning points and a Black Moment come into their minds.  If planned correctly, these turning points will have maximum impact.  They will surprise the reader while remaining true to the nature of the characters.  They will spin the story in a new direction from where it was headed before.

But how does one decide what those turning points are?

Because my early writings were “episodic”—a phrase used by an editor in an early revise and resubmit letter—I asked my writing friends how they plotted.  One of my most trusted friends—who is also a great plotter–said, “After each scene, I figure out what the characters would do next.”  While this works great for her (she’s published multiple books with two different New York publishers), this didn’t make sense to me.  I would always think “But if I knew what the character would do next, then I’d already know what my next plot point was.”  Clearly I was confused.  This approach made me struggle more.

The moral of the previous paragraph is the same lesson that applies to many aspects of writing:  What works for one writer may not work for you.  Each writer needs to find the process that works for her.

It wasn’t until I started studying the teachings of Lisa Cron that I finally understood the method that works best for me.  She wrote the book WIRED FOR STORY and also has a fabulous recorded webinar on the Writer’s Digest website.  I encourage everyone to read and listen to these resources from this master of story development.

Lisa teaches that a writer needs to know what the protagonist wants and how the protagonist changes in the story before any plot points can be determined.  Once these key elements have been identified, then plot points are planned.  According to Lisa, plot points are selected to “create escalating hurdles to force the protagonist to take specific chances she’d really rather not in order to get what she wants.”

I now think of the story as a big umbrella.  The umbrella is how the protagonist changes throughout the story.  Once I know how the protagonist changes, then I craft plot points that will challenge her, but will ultimately lead to that change.

This shift in mindset has helped my work to be less episodic and has saved me hours of sitting at the keyboard not knowing where the story goes next.

But as I said before, what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for the next.  I encourage you to continue to study the craft until you find techniques that click for you.  This will make you more productive and will make your stories stronger.

Sheila Athens writes contemporary romance for Montlake.  Her debut, THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE, was a 2013 Golden Heart finalist (under a different title) and was published in October, 2014.  When not writing, she seeks quiet spaces, eccentric people and colorful reading glasses.  She splits her time between her home in the Coastal South and her mountaintop cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  For more information, visit www.SheilaAthens.com.

3 thoughts on “On Selecting Plot Points”

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  2. I wish I could remember which workshop I was at, but the presenter said a similar thing that really has stuck with me: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character now? Do that, and make them get through it.

    That statement has done a lot to improve my plotting (and made me feel sorry for my poor characters!) It sounds like Lisa Cron’s work would resonate a lot with me – I’ll check her out. Thanks!

  3. I’ve been trying to read this for two days and since I’ve hit a speed bump in the WIP, decided this could help. And it did. So thanks! I’d never heard of that approach, but I like it. Thanks for the tip and the lead on Lisa Cron.

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