No matter how brilliant you think you are as a writer, no matter how firm your trust in your ability to make plot as you write, to stumble upon great twists and discover a neat ending as if by accident, learning how to properly make a plot can and will make you even better. It’s like the difference between a natural guitarist who picks it up on his own and teaches himself, versus a trained musician: the natural one might have the raw inspiration, but if he wants to become serious as a musician eventually he will have to learn to read music and play proper chords. If he does go through the effort to train himself in certain basic skills, he will become twice as versatile and probably discover new sounds he had never heard before.
Most people make the mistake of creating a story backward, starting by making a hero. In reality, you want to start with the World that the story will be set in, and making the hero (and his gang) is one of the last steps. Creating a plot can be summed up in five basics steps; creating the setting, establishing the society, identifying the problem, making the villain, and lastly, choosing the hero. It is a fail-proof method of creating everything you need for your story before you begin writing. But don’t make the mistake of creating your Hero first! If you do, he might turn out to be a “Me Character”!
Step one, creating the setting, begins with inspiration. The first rule for plotmaking is: never doublethink your first inspiration. What I mean by that is this: I have read many books over the years where the first 40 pages were brilliant, because they were written straight off of the original inspiration—usually a dream. After that the story tanks, because the inspiration runs out, and the writer takes over. The writer then changes things as the story goes, leaving behind how the original inspiration worked and re-inventing it into something that makes more logical sense... TO THEM. (But not to the reader.)
An example of this was Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series. She started out with this amazing idea for the dragons being able to telepathically speak to their riders, and their riders only... but the dragons were almost bestial, like very smart horses. They rarely spoke in words and seemed less intelligent than the genius-level critters they became later. Also, she gave the impression of a much more feudal political system where the dragonriders were more like feudal knights, and organized themselves into wings like jet fighters. That was much, MUCH cooler than the touchy-feely “you’re my best friend” care-bear relationships between dragon and rider later on in the books, and the fact that later the dragonriders did nothing except sanitize the atmosphere. No wars? No fighting? Lame! Her author-generated plot did not deliver what the first 40 pages of her first book promised.
Trust your inspiration, which may have been a dream, a piece of art, or something as simple as the desire to drive a motorcycle. Your inspiration knows better than you do how this story should go. Never ‘force’ a story out, by taking over and trying to artificially manufacture the rest of the story on the fly. A good story is like old wine: it needs to age. Let the pieces of inspiration gather together over time; combine many dreams together. (In my opinion, Anne McCaffrey really needed about five or six more dreams and inspiration-downloads before she had a world, but she started writing on just one. Premature.) Find ways to lace into one single piece hundreds of smaller pieces. Once you have enough pieces to make a full story from beginning TO END (don’t forget the end!) then you can begin to write.
Here are some tips for adding to your original inspiration. Find cool things. What are cool things? Depends on what you are writing. Jot down notes when you watch a good movie and something sticks out to you as brilliant... and it may be something as inconsequential as how the walk-on character in scene four did their hair. Cruise around on the internet, look up the prototypes of new cars coming out. Find concept art for movies, video games, especially the art that never got used. Listen to new music, especially cultural and ethnic music. Read about ancient and distant cultures. Read other people’s stories that feature neat, new, and different things. Play role-playing games. Travel. Try new and different kinds of jobs. Take local college classes just to learn about things you have never heard of or done before. Keep up on new inventions. Read about new theories or theoretical science.
Don’t plagurize! However, remember that it is impossible for the human brain to generate creative new content out of thin air. We need input. (Even dreams count as input, and no, dreams do not come out of “thin air.”) We need to see, feel, hear, smell things we have never seen before, things that spark our imagination and turn us on. Even if you collect artwork from other people that inspires you, you won’t end up with an identical copy of whatever someone else made up, that is impossible for a true artist. And it’s against the law. A real artist will use other people’s ideas as seeds, and these will grow into detailed, rich, lavish original content of your own. After all, what someone else made is not your ideal “cool.” Your cool is as unique as you are: so you really can’t plagiarize if you imagine well. The rule of thumb is: change everything. If you find a good piece of inspiration, alter as much of it as you can to make it better, and in the end if it was done correctly it should be completely unrecognizable from the original. Example: George Lucas was inspired by (among other things) Flash Gordon when he created Star Wars! No kidding.
Vehicles, plot types, settings, bad guys, these are the things that make a story. Compile a collection of doodads and make collages. Collect interesting snippets of random things and sort them into folders. Always keep a notebook or some program like OneNote (win) or Journler (mac) on hand to become your idea database. Be organized! Compile illustrations, photos, magazine clippings... anything that looks neat or gives you any kind of story idea whatever. Borrow liberally from the world around you, and of course borrow from your own personal experiences. NOTHING in writing comes off as well as real, true experience.
The most important thing in making a good plot is history. If you never read or study history, you will NOT be able to make a realistic and satisfying plot. If all of your storylines come purely out of your own imagination, they will feel tired, predictable, fake and plastic to both yourself and your readers.
This is where Steps Two and Three come in; creating the society and the problem(s) within that society. The best way to gain inspiration for this is pure research. Read history books; find real-life history plots that actually happened. Believe me, truth is much stranger than fiction. However, I must caution you about one thing: although things like miracles, ridiculous impossible-seeming coincidences, and God-sent bursts of fortune DO happen in real history, they do NOT wash in a fiction story. Truth is stranger than fiction... and it always will be. If you ‘give’ anything gratuitously to your characters, the reader will feel cheated and won’t believe the plot is realistic. I learned this one the hard way after writing something very close to the true history of my real life; but when put into fiction, every test-reader agreed that it was totally unbelievable in a story, and it had to be chucked.
So although you can and must follow true history to some extent (just as an exercise, look up the War of the Roses and read about what happened there, believe me, there are hundreds of great story ideas in that chunk of history), always work in a way for your Hero or characters to make everything good happen themselves, using elements and devices that are already part of the world and easily explainable. DO NOT create a Dingus out of thin air that can solve the entire plot with one push of the Omega Thirteen button, and NEVER have a god or goddess of some kind do anything FOR the character or give them a big break. That will ruin all of your writing credibility.
Mix and match your collage elements. Spend time (days, hours, months) dwelling on them, looking at them, playing with them in your mind. If you are starting to think that making a good plot takes a whole lot of preparation time—maybe more than you are willing to spend—you’re right. Like painting a room, preparation time is 90% of your story writing experience. Just to give you a sense of this, I have put over six years into creating ‘elements’ and background, history and culture for one story... then I spent six months working out a proper plot... then I wrote it in three weeks. The actual writing is the fastest and easiest part of the whole process.
The plot is ready when you have an ending, a solution. It takes discipline to keep tinkering with a plot until you have an ending, because sometimes things click together most of the way, and you are tempted to just start running with it and writing immediately, hoping that an ending will present itself by the time you get there. Don’t be fooled; it won’t. If you don’t start with any idea of an ending, you won’t usually ever come up with one. A plot is a structure that is woven together: the beginning and the ending are twins. They will both be tied together strongly. And the ending you come up with may force you to change your beginning to match.
Until you have the entire plot, chapter by chapter, or at least a very good idea of where the end will be, keep fiddling with it. Yes, I have heard of writers like Stephen King who never work out the ending, and who just write on the fly; but he is writing a very moody, atmospheric, specific kind of novel. Books created entirely to just freak you out don’t take much structure. But for a good adventure where a bad guy is defeated (and it’s not just about a monster “getting you”), you will need a Plot.
Let’s say you have found in your inspiration-searches a nifty type of building (the three-mile-high tower!) that you want to use as the basis for a new plot and culture. Figure out what kind of society would have been able to build that. Study civilizations of the past: think of how the society has to work to support that kind of structure. Make the place make sense and work together. Look into the culture: why would they need a three-mile-high building? Do they have the resources for it, and if they do, how did they get that rich? What supports this culture? Free trade, super-cheap and powerful forms of manufacturing, or somehow dominating other civilizations and bleeding them for resources?
Now think History. Your civlization wasn’t always this advanced, was it? What was it like fifty years ago? A hundred? Five hundred? Tinker with social organizations in that place. There are going to be modern organizations (religions, guilds, political parties) that are left over from more primitive and ancient days. How did they get started? Usually in history, a single free-thinking leader created a group, and that group became powerful for some darn good (and sometimes secret) reasons. Usually some of these groups will hate one another, or at least their goals will be at odds. Conflict and cross purposes is always the best beginning for a plot.
What is your government? How does it work? Study the different types of government that have existed throughout history... from the ancient Matriarchal Queens of the Middle East, to the elder-ruled semi-Geriocracy of most Asian countries. Or the Oligarchy format of the Age of Empires in Europe, which provided the unified organization necessary for the exploration of the globe and the re-discovery of America. Think about rival superpowers or kingdoms in your world that don’t like each other, conflict, disputed inheritance, something in that society is out of balance and has to be put back into balance.
Balance is the key: your plot doesn’t have to be about one evil bad-guy doing evil bad-guy stuff. In fact, that is the lamest possible plot. The best plots happen when two large groups are just doing their jobs, and their jobs happen to be completely incompatible. Like two large corporations that make the same product or provide the same service fighting over the market, as in James Clavel’s ‘Noble House’... where all the shipping companies in Hong Kong were literally at war over who dominates the shipping market.
If you are thinking that you aren’t educated enough to do this kind of thinking, nonsense! Education is just reading a lot. If you can read, then you can educate yourself, and it doesn’t take nearly as much time as watching half a TV series. Go read about shipping companies or buildings, find out what kind of contractors are needed to make really big ones, what kind of machinery. What kind of boats for shipping? How does the organization run? And let your imagination fill in the details. All imagination is really good for is connecting the dots. The dots are research.
Stick with GROUPS that are at war with one another; it is very unrealistic to have a single vigilante lone ranger changing the world all by himself. It can happen, but the most likely outcome is that no matter how superpowered your “Me Character” is, he will have a very brief brilliant career just a couple of years long and be smashed by some large group who finds him annoying. Either that, or if his vision is really needed right then and he has struck upon the right motion for all of society to take, he will be joined by hundreds of followers very quickly and will no longer be a Lone Ranger. Also remember that when the one lone ranger dies, his entire mission dies with him. Better to lead a large group or rebellion that can not only support itself but continue the fight after the leader is gone or imprisoned.
Read histories of real rebellions and war campaigns like Che Guevarra’s “Guerrilla Warfare” and Menachem Begin’s “The Revolt” for ideas on how to organize these structures.
Stay away from the over-used “fighting over the throne” cliché. Only in certain civilizations was a fight for the throne even possible, and only at certain very unstable times. Usually the inheritance to the throne was a well-oiled machine, with literally hundreds of hopefuls in line to take the crown and no shortage of legitimate heirs.
Consider ancient Turkey, for example: in the Ottoman Empire, the Emperor would produce as many sons as possible, farm them all out to nobles all over the place, then when he died it was expected that all of these sons would travel around, find and fight one another to the death like some kind of Highlander movie because “there can be only one.” Sure, that can make a great story. But you usually won’t have the fairytale version happen where the ENTIRE royal family somehow dies off, and there is only one lost orphan baker-boy left who was raised as a humble peasant.
Once you have your basic History and civilization worked out (present and past), fast-forward into the future to figure out the solution to the imbalance in the society that exists currently. An imbalance is where someone is too powerful, and power needs to be restored to the proper authority. Either that, or power has become too diffused and there is no real leader: someone needs to take over, centralize, and create order out of chaos. You can do this in many ways, on a variety of scales. You don’t have to have your character take over the government. He could just finally gain control of his classroom, like in the movie “Stand And Deliver.” Or he could take over his company, and finally lead it toward excellent profits. Or he could take over a traditional position of formalized family leadership, and become the patriarch and protector of his little tribe. Or he could take over himself, and stop being insane.
Decide what you want to accomplish with the plot. Maybe fixing the imbalance isn’t enough; maybe you want to move your good guys to a certain place (where book two will happen), rearrange cultural positions (they solve the plot, but they end up in an unexpected role, or they don’t get the credit, or their victory is totally misunderstood), turn situations around in order to teach certain lessons or demonstrate different results of theory or ideals (like teaching that the rich aren’t necessarily happy because they are rich, and the poor aren’t necessarily sad because they are poor). You could think of this as the end-position. Sometimes is’s a moral lesson, sometimes it’s merely a set-up for a continuing plot.
A Note on Magic: DO figure out how your magic actually works, write the rules down, and STICK TO THEM!!! Too many times a halfway decent fantasy or sci-fantasy story is completely ruined because the author never figured out why and how their magic works, and they make up the system as they go along. Remember, your readers are going to have better memories than you do! If your wizard could do one thing in the beginning, but by the end he seems to have lost the ability to do that for no good reason, you will lose your readers.
The best thing to do is think of magic like electricity, and figure out the system like it’s some kind of technology. Where does the power (electric current) come from? What generates it? How do you channel it? Can only certain people generate/channel the energy, or can anyone learn how if they have a particularly powerful ‘enlightenment’ experience? Do you have to convert it from pure power into usable current? Do you need devices, potions, spells, training, or weird tattoos to convert and shape the energy? How is it controlled? How can it be turned off? Turned on? Blocked? Redirected? Are there ways to misuse it? Can you make a mistake and blow yourself up? Are there only certain things the magic can do, or certain things it just cannot do? Why? It’s necessary to figure all this out before you start plotmaking, especially if magic is essential to your plot.
And if magic is NOT essential to the plot, and there is really no reason for it to be there except as window dressing, DO NOT make a mage character! You don’t need extra characters cluttering things up that don’t actually effect the plot.
And please, do not make magic some kind of omnipotent force that can do “anything.” If you remember in Lucas’s Star Wars, the Jedi were much more fun because they only had a couple of really good powers. Limited magic always makes for a much more interesting plot, because then it becomes a tool, not the all-powerful solution for everything, and your characters still have to solve the conflict using brains and cunning.
Second Note: The point of your plot is NOT to make the Hero more cool. Making the entire story just in order to give him neat new gadgets to play with makes one of the lamest anti-plots in the world. It's not a crime for the good guys to have the cool doodads (like the Sword of Ultimate Power), but you might as well give it to them in the beginning and get it over with. Then the plot can involve the Hero playing with his cool doodad, which is much more fun.
And remember, the more powerful the doodad your Hero has, the more problems he should expect. Do you think everyone on the planet WANTS your Hero to have the Sword of Ultimate Power? NO! Make sure he is chased and harassed, maybe even sued, because other people are trying to take his doodad away. Remember, jealous people can be vicious!!
Finally, we move on to Step Four of plotmaking. After you have lots of cultural items pulled together (how they dress, what they live in, what they use as vehicles, language, religion, politics, just to name a few), and you have figured out how your society is out of balance and where the conflict can occur, make a Villain. This should be really easy once you have your large organizational structures and groups in place. He should almost write himself at this point; because an out-of-balance culture is going to develop vacuums of power, and baddies will crop up like mushrooms in those vacuums.
For example: a society where the religion has become too powerful, and has restricted the merchant class to the point where the entire society is dying for lack of free trade. People are starving, businesses are closing down, and all the while the religious class is raising taxes! Your bad-guy is obviously going to be part of the religious group, probably someone pretty high up. In fact, you can make legions of Villains who all know one another and invite each other to BBQ’s, and you could have your Hero (with appropriate backup group) take them all out, one at a time! Remember to have your Hero facing the appropriate backlash of disapproval and maybe police intervention from the rest of society, who feels that attacking a religious person is Evil Incarnate... whether or not that religious person is doing evil or not.
The fifth and final step: make your Hero. You might be tempted to make him up first thing, before you make anything else in the plot, but have discipline! He has to be developed at the very end. Because at this point—with your culture worked out, your history, your main social groups, your imbalance in society, a good Villain, and your future solution—almost anyone can work as a Hero. Just make sure he has the temperament to get involved with the plot, and the ability and the resources to decide to stop the bad guy when it comes to that crucial decision point.
It is usually better to make a fresh Hero for this situation now than to use an old Hero you made up years ago and have been fantasizing about ever since... because the fantasy-focus old Hero has way too much invested in him. You as the author want him to win too badly, and you will unconsciously cheat to make him win. But if you really don’t have all that much invested, it will always feel as if there is a real possibility that the Hero might not make it... which generates your sense of suspense and drama.
Harrison Ford in the Indianna Jones movies, as an actor, was a master at this kind of loose hold on a Hero character: he didn’t seem to care if Indianna won or not. Instead, he let the director do what he wanted. After all, Indy was just a dime-store comic-book kind of character and Harrison always seemed to think of him that way. When you always feel as if Indianna might die at any moment, and he just seems to escape by miracle after miracle, fans of the Jones movies end up glued to their seats and can’t get enough.
I call this kind of back-seat Hero-writing “Hero Torture.” Don’t pamper your Hero! Don’t make the inexperienced author mistake of making everything go his way as if he’s the Golden Child of the universe! Beat him up, constantly! The more you beat him up (obviously don’t make it ridiculous, be at least a little realistic), the more opportunity he will have to grow up and grow stronger, and the happier your reader will be by the end of the story. Don’t pull your punches! Think of the second “Aliens” movie! We loved Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley because she would not give up and she would not die, even when all of us would have! If your Hero is too wimpy to take what the author can dish out, he’s probably not much of a Hero.
Remember, when it all comes down to it, you as the author are NOT your Hero. YOU ARE THE BAD GUY. If you play role-playing games, you are the GM (Game Master)! Your hero should win DESPITE you, not BECAUSE of you.
One final bit of advice for making a plot. Go with your instincts, and hold the reigns loosely. A lot of times when I draft a great plot out on paper, when I actually go to write the story, events take unexpected turns. Go with what is good. Movies often happen this way too. If something brilliant happens spontaneously that totally changes your plot, stop there and go back to your plot draft, and re-write the route your characters will take to the ending. Sometimes you will rewrite it three times before you finally finish the book. But because spontaneous inspiration and character interaction is genuine and surprised even the author, it will probably surprise the reader too and add a huge boost to your realism and suspense.