What Makes An Attractive Plotline?
As an editor, I meet a lot of GOOD writers out there who are really frustrated.
They are sick of plots that go nowhere. They're annoyed by readers who ‘don’t have time, sorry’ to give feedback. And they're tired of winding up with drifting, mediocre plotlines that lack passion.
Most of all, they get the feeling that their plot could be doing better, but they don't know how to fix it.
I also hear from a lot of writers who are frustrated by the conflicting advice they get from their friends and the media. People telling them things like:
‘Don’t do outlines, just write and everything will follow.’
‘Plots have to contain conflict, conflict, conflict.’
‘Your story needs three acts but you also have to be original.’
With all this confusion, it's understandable that a lot of writers feel like there's no way to win at the writing game. That feeling of apathy then leads into a lack of energy to make the time to write. 80% of writers complain that they have ‘no time’ to write, but that’s because their own writing isn’t driving them to MAKE time.
Consider the following points and how they apply to your fiction:
1. The Two Levels Of Plot.
One of the most common questions I get asked by writers is ‘How do I create a plot that has real attraction?’.
Everyone knows what it's like to get the interest of a reader. You get a smile as someone reads a bit of your work, a positive comment on social media, or a friend urges you to go further and write more. But these small signs are usually from your friends - the vast reading public remains out of view and out of reach.
How do you reliably turn out a powerful plot that even a stranger will be drawn to?
What most writers don't realise is that there are really two levels to attraction: a surface level, and a deeper level.
A plot is like an iceberg.
Above the surface, it can look good and have exciting characters and events that grip readers, especially at the beginning. Some tales have pretty good success getting shallow attraction from readers and audiences with opening scenes or chapters. They get passing interest. But they don't know how to turn it into something deeper - and so they are constantly losing readers and audiences before the plot’s conclusion. Readers get past the first page, and then things fizzle. Eventually - in fact, quite quickly - interest fades away. It's frustrating, and can kill your self-esteem as a writer.
What’s missing is what happens under the surface in any successful story.
Hidden from view is a simple but extensive framework which draws readers in using four specific mechanisms. You can use these to create deep attraction with plots.
I'm going to explain to you these missing elements that most writers don't understand.
I've had students tell me that this simple information answered 90% of their confusion with their own fiction. They say it gave them a framework that transformed the way they tackled plots for the better.
The first thing we should establish is that when I talk about creating deep attraction with a plot, it's not about characters. Characters are vital and have their own checklist.
Deep attraction in plots comes from building in four key plot elements.
Install these elements and readers will be drawn to your story naturally.
2. What Makes An Attractive Plotline?
If you ask 100 writers this question about characters, you will probably get 200 different answers. I ask this question all the time, and get answers like: a fully developed biography, confidence, emotion, intelligence, style, looks, humour, consistency, passion, someone who knows what he wants, etc etc.
It’s the same with plots.
What makes a good plot? A fully developed outline? A confident style? Lots of emotion? An underlying intelligence? Humour? Conflict? More conflict?
The list is quite literally endless, but it boils down to three key steps.
They are, in order:
Recognition: Most writers have no idea how important it is that a reader recognise something of their own circumstances in a plot situation, especially at the beginning. (Actually, any truly effective story beginning has something of the reader’s situation in it.) From the first encounter, readers need to sense some kind of similarity to a leading character’s plight before they can even begin to consider an emotional commitment to a story.
The problem is, most writers don't recognise the importance of recognition, let alone know how to really build solid similarity with a reader into a scene. I will explain how to do this in a moment.
Mystery: To balance the similarity with readers, a truly memorable storyline also has to have an element of unpredictability, some kind of hidden quality or depth or unexpected twist. Though as readers we see something of our own lives in a story’s opening, we should soon begin to sense that we don’t quite have this tale’s full measure - and that sensation is incredibly powerful.
Emptiness: This is the most powerful attribute of the three - emptiness creates desire, and desire moves us. As you will learn, the invisible force generated by something NOT there, by something MISSING, by a gap, a hole, an absence, an unknown, a loss, is the most powerful force in fiction.
Just as readers respond to characters who are motivated by loss or emptiness and show a desire for something, confidence in developing plotlines all boils down to this element.
Stories where everything is present and ordered as it should be lack life and energy.
When you put all these elements together, you get the formula for deep attraction.
Write that down. Remember it. Here's an exercise:
Think of the last piece of plotting you wrote.
Did it embody something that might be real to a reader? Not just any reader, but a potential reader of your stories, a member of your specific audience?
Did you give readers the impression that something or someone was desired? Did you wait too long before having something dramatically removed? Were your characters in a situation that readers might recognise? Or did you write straight from your imagination and go over the top?
Think about it carefully and you’ll discover a strong trend.
When you communicated emptiness, loss and desire, your writing embodied the qualities of powerful fiction and reached out to readers. And when you were shy about emptiness, loss and desire, when you hesitated and were too kind to your characters, or made them unrecognisable, attraction died.
Plot attraction (in readers) is the feeling of being drawn into emptiness after emptiness by characters they recognise.
For more, see my book, How Stories Really Work.