Some writers object to thinking about plot and structure because it may lead to formulaic writing. They miss a critical distinction.
Why does something become a formula in the first place? Because it works!
Here’s a formula for an omelet: Crack a couple of eggs. Scramble them. Heat up a skillet. Butter it. Pour in the eggs. Cook them a bit. Add ingredients. Fold the eggs over the ingredients. Serve.
This is a formula that works. But notice the variables. Depending on the cook and the experience level, the omelet can be delicious or a disaster, or something in between. And, with the addition of certain spices, the flavor can vary. It’s still an omelet, it’s still a formula, but it has a whole range of outcomes.
Same with plotting. There are principles that work. But alone they don’t guarantee an original novel. You still have to add your spices, your skills, your talent.
Knowing why plots work is freeing. Master the principles, and you’re at liberty to add all your personal touches. Good chefs have their secret spices, ingredients they use to give their creations something extra and unique. For writers, the spices you add to make your plot your own include:
In his book, The Art Of Creative Writing, Lajos Egri asserts that the key to originality in fiction comes from characters. “Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing. Read, or better, study the immortals and you will be forced to conclude that their unusual penetration into human character is what has kept their work fresh and alive through the centuries . . .”
Note the word formula! Let’s test this.
What is it that sets Dickens apart in our minds? Fagin and Wilkins Micawber; Uriah Heep and Miss Havisham; Peggoty and Barkis. Characters who sparkle in his plots like jewels. Don’t let any of your characters plop into your plot like plain vanilla. Spice them up.
Can you take us to a place we’ve never been before? That will enliven any plot. And I don’t necessarily mean some place far away from home, although that’s an option. It could mean simply setting your scenes in places that are fresh.
How many times do we have conversations between two potential lovers in a restaurant? Back and forth they go, the only original element being what they are served by the waiter. Why not put them in a tree house? Or on the subway stuck in a tunnel? Or underneath the boardwalk by the sea?
Setting also includes the details of life surrounding the lead character. Tom Clancy created a whole new genre called Techno-thriller because he put his hero, Jack Ryan, into a world of complex military hardware. That was new.
Readers love to read about the details of other people’s working lives. Do research. Immerse yourself in some occupation, either by training for it or interviewing an expert about it. Whatever you do, don’t show characters practicing professions in the same old way. Dig deeper and find original details. You can still write about cops and lawyers and truck drivers, but only if you give them updated challenges and settings. Find out what they are and spice up your writing.
Dialogue is a great opportunity to spice up your plots. Don’t waste it! It helps to originalize characters and move the plot along. If it isn’t doing either of those things, it probably should be cut.
No two characters should sound exactly alike. And the words they use should tell us something about who they are. If a character is the charge ahead type, he’ll speak that way. His words will be forceful, direct. Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is like that. Here he confronts the odd little intruder, Joel Cairo:
I’ve got you by the neck, Cairo. You’ve walked in and tied yourself up, plenty strong enough to suit the police, with last night’s killing. Well, now you’ll have to play with me or else.
But Cairo uses fancier verbiage:
I made somewhat extensive inquiries about you before taking any action, and was assured that you were far too reasonable to allow other considerations to interfere with profitable business relations.
We know, simply from the words, that these are two very different characters.
So write your plots, add your spices, and make the story delectable to your readers.
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.
Sharon Mayhew says
My picture book writing (manuscripts) has improved since I started plotting them out. 🙂
BECCA PUGLISI says
Good for you! I started out writing picture books, and they’re SO HARD. You think that with the shorter word count, it will be easy, but it’s not. You have to apply the same principles of story structure, but with only 1000 or so words.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
A part of me crumples whenever someone says they avoid story structure because it hems them in. Like all aspects of writing craft, understanding what something is and why/how it works is KNOWLEDGE that can be applied to make a story stronger. How it is applied is up to the writer.
I really agree with this: “Knowing why plots work is freeing.” It really is!
Agreed. When I encounter fellow noobs who want to write a scifi story or a crime story or a fantasy story because they like Star Wars or John Wick ~sigh~ or Game of Thrones, I ask who they read. Crickets. They don’t get that you can’t learn the structure or tropes of those forms without reading wide through the field.
Troy Michael says
Good points. Always need an occasional wake up. Characters plot and dialogue can get repetitive and boring