Momentum, Mystery and Morality
Plot Power comes in many forms. Emotion, character qualities, the fact that your story is in a genre - I’m not going to deny that these things probably make it easier for a writer to get a shallow sort of attraction from readers.
But I have met HUNDREDS of writers who were literate, imaginative, very capable and well organised, packed their stories with emotional language, had great characters and who wrote within recognisable and accepted genres, and they had a terrible time attracting readers.
All of these things belong to that part of the iceberg readers can see. When it comes to deep reader attraction, there's only one kind of power that really counts, the kind of power that every successful story uses, the power that lies beneath the surface of the story.
There are four specific kinds of power in a successful plot. They work beneath its surface, but bring about four separate visible aspects. Underestimate these things at your peril:
You want readers to turn pages; you want readers to describe your story as ‘unputdownable’. To create Momentum, you need to place a series of unknowns or gaps or missing information or losses in a linear sequence along your plot.
Start with something small (and recognisable); then move to something larger and more important (like the loss of a parent or friend) then move on to something of even greater magnitude (like the removal or threat of removal of livelihood or location) and build up to the biggest loss or risk of all towards the end.
Get this right and your readers will be desperate to continue to read. They are actually being almost physically pulled forward by the vacuum power of the missing things.
You want your readers to be glued to the page. To create Mystery, you simply need to keep them asking ‘What’s really going on here?’
Start by knowing the answers to the mysteries yourself, then leave a trail false and real clues throughout the scenes and chapters. Reveal the answers to the mysteries later, with the answer to the biggest mystery occurring at the climax of the plot. In many ways, that answer IS the climax of the plot.
You want your readers to be personally engaged with the story. To create Morality, you need to present your characters with choices. These can be simple choices between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, but the reader will become even more engaged if the choices are between one evil and another apparently lesser evil, or are choices which clash with the nature of the characters making them.
By creating a web of ‘holes’ in this way, you will have laid the foundation of a truly powerful plot.
But there’s more.
The Heart Of The Plot
I call this the ‘nuclear reactor’ of stories.
A successful plot needs to be based on the biggest, most all-embracing, most important and most impactful ‘hole’ of all.
What’s your story really all about? What was the Big Idea behind it? What forms the bulk of the iceberg, holding it all in place?
If you could write out in one sentence what you wanted a reader to understand as a result of reading your story, what would that sentence say?
The heart of your plot needs to reflect that.
What do I mean? Isolate the biggest thing in your story, the most important thing, the most valuable thing, and take it away. Leave a huge, gaping void or threat or risk there.
That void is what will drive the whole plot.
Look at any successful story you care to name, a novel, a film, a play, anything you like: the biggest thing about that story will be an enormous hole or gigantic threat at the end.
In George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, the giant threat is the Death Star. Everything builds up to this huge weapon reaching a point where it can finally wipe out the Rebellion.
In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron the Dark Lord strives to recover the One Ring, into which he has placed a great deal of his power and through which his conquest of the world will be complete. The plot grows in power as he comes closer to discovering it.
Moving away from fantasy, in To Kill a Mockingbird the biggest danger is the loss of the innocent children’s lives at the end. Everything else in the story has led up to that point.
Each of these core risks has something to do with the author’s message, whether it be a simple moral or something more subtle and complex.
The one thing I've learned about teaching dozens of writers how to improve their plots over the years is that successful writing isn't something you can really teach. Rather, it's something you un-teach. This is more about helping writers strip away all of the negative or unworkable things they have learned about writing fiction to get to the real principles underneath.
It's about getting writers in touch with their innermost ideas.
It's about helping them get contact with their natural and positive abilities that have been suppressed by lack of data or false concepts.
It's about helping them overcome the fears, anxieties and self-doubts that keep them from being truly effective with readers.
It's also about helping them understand readers, and how they suffer equally (but differently) from the same pressures.
And when you do that, you unleash inner creativity, inner confidence, inner originality and energy - and readers notice. They start to respond to stories differently.
The secret to being an effective writer is realising that you already are - you have just lacked certain specific tools.
See my book How Stories Really Work.