There are some genres of fiction, notably literary fiction, in which you can get away with meager plots as long as your characters are fascinating and your writing is lyrical.
But in most genres, you’ll need an engaging plot to showcase those fantastic characters. Ideally your protagonist—or someone close to your protagonist—goes through a transformative experience in the course of the story. One way to think of it is to consider that the plot is what forces the character to make this change. Many writing teachers call this The Crucible. The events of the plot put the character in a place where he must transform or be defeated by the plot circumstances.
As you look at the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist, consider whether there’s a strong link between the external events of the plot and the internal arc of the character. As you edit, make connections between the two as much as you can without belaboring the point. Yes, we want the reader to get it, but readers are smart. They want hints, not lectures.
A common error in new writers’ manuscripts is to send the hero off on his journey without clearly defining what he wants, why, and what will happen if he doesn’t get it. That’s why this is important:
☐ The stakes for the principal characters are stated early and clearly.
This element is also called the “story problem” or “major dramatic question.” If the readers can’t tell from the outset what the character’s ambitions and goals are, they’re going to have little reason to keep turning pages.
It is perfectly OK—even advisable—to change the character’s goals mid-game. That keeps things interesting. This happens in Gone with the Wind, in which Scarlett’s goal at the outset is simply to catch herself a good man. But when the war disrupts her life, she is thrust into the story crucible where her goal becomes surviving and protecting Tara, her family home.
Some stories take more buildup than others, and it is a good idea to show what the character’s life looks like before everything goes haywire. Mitchell does a good job of mentioning the war early on, and even if she didn’t, because it’s based on historic events, we would know the war was coming even if Scarlett didn’t. So there would still be tension in those early scenes.
But if the purpose of your book is to show how the inciting incident totally disrupts an otherwise happy life, you need to be careful.
Let’s say we’re writing a story about a happy suburban mom whose life is perfect—until an elderly parent moves in, needing close supervision and care, disrupting the family’s life and opening up old wounds from her childhood that she has long since buried.
We would want to open with the before picture, so the reader can see what’s lost by the disruption of the inciting incident. But the problem with starting a story by showing happy people in happy land is that there’s no tension driving the story forward. Try to introduce a little, even if it’s just the normal tensions of daily life, and better still would be to try hinting at the change that’s coming.
Tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages, so we’ll talk more about it next time.