Friday, May 3, 2019

Elements of Fiction: How to Build a Strong Plot

Whether we’re creating short or long works of fiction, plot is one of the key elements of story writing. Simply put, the plot consists of a beginning, middle and end. Plot is the structure, the architecture of a story. Build it strong and you have coherence. Build it weak and it falls apart. The plot of a story needs to be dynamic. Like a tree, it grows well if it has deep, healthy roots.

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, a good plot puts forth a question, a puzzle, a mystery that needs a solution. Plots have a chain of cause and effect relationships, not just what happens, which is the story, but why things happen the way they do. Clearly, this brings character into play.

I believe it’s best to create a flexible outline before starting to write so that you have a clear idea of where your story is going. I write a rough synopsis of the plot. But before I tackle that, I write a character bible which names and describes the key figures.

As to the actual writing, I begin with the setup, an initial action or problem that needs to be solved. The beginning defines main characters and what they want, what motivates and drives their needs.

I try to start a book or story in medias res, beginning in the middle of a scene of some significance. Something important should be happening. Dialogue and action are crucial. You don’t want a static beginning. Description, internal monologue, narration, flashback and reflections all have their place, but they need to be limited, and they should not occur right at the beginning of a work.

My latest YA novel WITCH WISH begins in the middle of an argument, setting up a conflict between two sisters leading to surprising complications.

I suggest intriguing the reader by starting with some form of mystery. Make your reader curious from the first and then keep them guessing.

Think of the middle of the novel as rising action (Aristotle’s words). What happens grows organically from what occurs in the beginning. The protagonist runs into difficulties and can’t easily solve them. Don’t slow the pace. Keep the tension building. Increase the danger and/or the obstacles. This goes for any genre of fiction whether it is romance, sci-fi, mystery, literary etc. Always remember that the main characters drive the plot which involves some deep innate need or flaw in character.

I was very pleased with the review from LIBRARY JOURNAL regarding my latest mystery novel DEATH PROMISE:

“The plot kept this reviewer turning the pages."

The ending of a story should contain a climax, falling action and a denouement or final resolution. Some element of change needs to occur. Elements of plot follow a distinct pattern and yet each plot should be unique and not formulaic.

Jan Fields of Institute for Writers has this to say on the topic: 
Plot is exactly how the journey happened in the story. And if you have skills and imagination, your plot will not be exactly like anyone else's, nor will it be just like any other story you've written.”

Your comments welcome!


  1. All good points, Jacqueline. But you're much more methodical than I am with your outline and bible. I go much more by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I wish I didn't, but it seems to work for me...more or less.

    1. Paul,

      You're doing great. So I agree you should stick to your methods.

  2. Jacqueline, I echo Paul's comment. I'm a pantser too - the plot grows organically. I also believe in flow and spontaneity. If a character tells her or his own story and takes over a bit as I go, so be it.
    Of course, I have a general plot idea, often motivated by one or two themes that end up weaving in and around the plot. But I just find outlines too restrictive. When I make even a rough one, I end up not following them.
    Writers must find a way to tell their stories that works for them.

    1. Steven,

      Thanks for sharing your own views on this important topic for writers.

  3. Great topic, Jacqueline,
    I admire writers who can outline their plot. I'm a panster too, but it takes a lot of work about 3/4 into the story because I have to make everything fit together. Then there's a lot of rewriting, but that's the only way it works for me. When I write nonfiction, I do work from an outline.

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      The only problem with being a pantser is ending up with extra rewrites.

  4. Great advice as always Jacqueline!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings

  5. Good advice, Jacquie. Plot is my weak point and I have to work to build up suspense, develop twists and surprises, and keep the story moving.

    1. Susan,

      I agree that it's not easy. But I always love your plots.

  6. I admire good 'plotters'. I try to use an outline and some times that works. Then there are times when I have no outline but a good start and the ending already in mind, that when I have what I call a squishy middle. That's when I have to plod along to get my plot working.

    1. Margaret,

      I often think middles are the hardest part to write.

  7. Loved all the advice, Jacquie :) I use similar methods as you, even including a storyboard, especially if I have several convoluted characters. But, being a pantser...or as I sometimes think of it, a conduit for my characters, sometimes something or someone will go sideways and I'm sitting at the desk in consternation. In my latest work, I had a character decide to come to Galveston, wanting to physically be around the protagonist. I did not see that coming. Definite plot twist, but, it created a love triangle, and some of my crit partners seem fascinated, so we'll see. I enjoyed the post, gal! Lo

  8. Great advice. I'm struggling with a short story right now, so it helped. Beginning, middle, end. I find that in short stories, starting with an emotion I want to show can help.

  9. To me the points you made of what goes into a plot are needed, regardless of whether the plot unfolds organically as you write it, as the characters tell you it, or if planned out ahead of time. To me, the mark of a good write is that they unconsciously (or consciously) incorporate the points you make.

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