Friday, December 10, 2010

Writing Class: The Plot Thickens - or if it doesn't, it should...

When first attempting a novel, many writers have a great idea. They know how to begin their story. They may know how they want it to end. It’s just the middle that is problematic – the 200 or so pages that take the reader from start to finish.

Most writers know they need a conflict, for conflict is the fuel of story. There is a character with a want or need, and an obstacle preventing that character from fulfilling that want or need.

Some common examples:

· Girl wants boy, but she is shy, and boy doesn’t know she even exists.

· Boy wants girl and is about to ask her out when he loses his job, and no longer thinks he’s worthy of her.

· A piece of jewellery is stolen from a woman who wants to find the thief and get it back, even though this may be dangerous.

· An athlete has his heart set on winning a particular race even though he’s lost months of training due to an illness, and his odds aren’t good.

So far, all this information is contained in the set-up. But what happens next? To keep the reader hooked, you’ll generally need to complicate the plot – to heighten the conflict and increase the stakes. The above examples may look like this:

· The more shy girl sees of boy who doesn’t know she exists, the more interested in him she becomes. She keeps her feelings to herself, not even confiding in her best friend, Jane. Increasingly aware of his positive qualities, she decides to overcome her shyness and approach him but just then Jane tells her that she’s noticed this guy (same guy, of course) she thinks is cute, and has decided she’s going to ask him out. Girl secretly hopes that boy will refuse, but pretty soon he and Jane are an item…

· Boy loses his job just before he asks girl out. Landlord puts his rent up so not only is he jobless, he is also in debt. A slump in the economy makes finding another job particularly difficult. Girl appears more beautiful every time he sees her. Meanwhile, he knows for a fact that lots of wealthy guys are asking her out. A chance encounter with her reveals that she is even kinder, sweeter and more understanding than he’d ever imagined, and she takes up permanent residence in his head, but his debt is rising…

· The woman whose ring has been stolen is determined to get it back because it was given to her by her grandmother, and has a great deal of sentimental value. During the course of tracking the thief, she discovers that he is not only a thief; he is also wanted for murder. In the meantime, she finds out that the ring is actually worth a great deal of money…

· The athlete trains with persistence and determination and feels he just might be getting somewhere. But then he has a relapse and another precious week of training is lost. Meanwhile, he discovers that winning the race will mean a scholarship to a university, and is his only chance at tertiary education. He’s hopeful that with renewed perseverance he might have a hope. Then he finds out that he will be racing against the formidable X, who has never ever lost a race…

In short, the obstacles become greater, the stakes higher, so that much is to be gained if the characters achieve their goals, and a great deal to be lost if they do not.

Of course, not every novel will look like this, but most popular, commercially successful novels will. Generally speaking, giving your main characters a hard time will elicit sympathy from the reader and generate respect when your characters finally overcome seemingly impossible obstacles to achieve their goals.

If you're editing a first draft, make sure you've complicated your plot, increased the obstacles, and raised the stakes. A good question to ask yourself is this: Have I made things as difficult for my character as I possibly could?


  1. Two words: THANK YOU.

    I just wrote a blog post about this. I really can't express how grateful I am for these words.

  2. Thanks, Lila. Getting such positive feedback makes it worth the effort.