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Develop a Powerful Plot in Four Steps

If you were to sit down right now and write, what would you write about?

For those of you who have a work ongoing, you might simply want to continue with the next scene or portion that needs writing; for those of you who harbour a desire to be a writer but who haven’t yet made it happen to any degree, you might sit there and ponder what to do until time sweeps the opportunity away. So for the moment, whether you are writing something already or haven’t started, put things aside and look at a piece of blank paper or a page on a screen and think about where you would start a new work.

This is another unusual approach, which you can use or dismiss as you see fit, but one way of getting started would be this:

1. Write down the biggest or most awful calamity that you can imagine occurring to a character or a set of characters in a story.

The story can be of any kind, any genre, any length for the moment - simply imagine the most dramatic and largest disaster you can, in the context of some kind of tale. It might be the invasion of Earth, or a sinking cruise liner, or a family torn apart by war, or a relationship ruined by illness - whatever you can think of as something enormous, almost insurmountable.

2. Now decide whether you want this story to end happily or sadly.

Is this horrific event which you have postulated going to be the end of the tale? Or is something going to happen, perhaps something miraculous, which turns this event around or restores order or happiness in some way? You decide.

3. The next step is to determine an event which is of about half the magnitude of the one you just cooked up.

In the same context, with the same characters, come up with something about half as bad as the disaster you invented in step 1. In the invasion story, perhaps it’s an encounter with an alien; in the tale of the sinking cruise liner, maybe someone on board dies or falls overboard; in the saga of the family torn apart by war, perhaps someone gets wounded or is captured by the enemy. It’s not quite so bad as the event in step 1, but it’s bad enough.

4. Now invent something which is merely irksome - in other words, something in the same story which is of much less magnitude than you’ve come up with so far, but is still not good.

The invasion of Earth story might have an incident in which the hero is alarmed or interrupted in some way; the sinking cruise liner might be delayed or perhaps an argument takes place as it sets off; the family torn apart by war has a sad scene in which the father learns that it is likely that he will be called up to serve in the armed forces. Try to make this event fairly mild, fairly commonplace, something that might just occur in the reality of a reader of the story in question.

In these four steps, you have created the outline of the plot of most great works of fiction - and even most not-so-great works - in reverse.

Most stories begin with the protagonist facing a minor inconvenience or setback. They progress to a more serious event, in which something important is lost or is under threat. Then, as we reach the climax, we find that works of fiction pull out all the stops and present us with the biggest, baddest crisis in that story’s terms.

Do this several times. Examine movies or novels or plays and see if you can see the pattern.

Then, if you are writing a story with a sad ending, leave the major disaster in place and put the reader in a position where he or she has to close the book right in the middle of it.

If you want a happy ending, devise some way in which events can suddenly turn, in what Tolkien called a ‘eucatastrophe’, the opposite of a catastrophe, so that the reader closes the book having experienced a release from the horrors of that final climax.

Suddenly you’re a master plot builder.

See what you can come up with.


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