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The art of plotting (In-depth guide)

The art of plotting (In-depth guide) The art of plotting (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    Plotting is one of the most difficult elements of story to master. Even seasoned writers often struggle with how to get from point A to point B in their stories. While there is no foolproof way to plot a story, in this unit we'll offer different ways to think about plotting in order to demystify the process. For writers who plot as they go (pantsers), we'll be looking at ways to offer yourself more structure while still keeping that improvisational spirit alive. For veteran planners, we'll be offering new ways to think about structure and planning. 

    What is a plot?

    A plot is the series of actions and events that comprise the story. In Wattpad stories, we want these events to have a cause and effect relationship where events sequentially build on each other.

    If this sounds complicated, it isn't really. Plot is just the stuff that happens in the story. What “counts” as a plot is dependent on the story's genre, stakes and the kind of story you want to tell. In a romantic comedy, plot events might include things like meeting in an elevator, going for coffee, and having a first kiss. Whereas in an epic fantasy story, plot events might include a masquerade ball, an assassination attempt, and a bloody battle between two armies.

    On Wattpad, the best stories are ones in which character actions matter to the story, and every chapter advances the plot (even if it's just in small ways!). Over the course of our Plotting module, we'll be addressing these issues in big and small ways.

    Goals, motivations, conflict, stakes

    Goals, Motivation, Conflict, and Stakes are the building blocks of plot, sometimes called a story engine. While none of these elements are themselves plot events, they create the conditions for plot to happen and to matter to the characters and the reader. Let's review these elements.

    • Goals: The external thing the character wants to achieve, the thing they are moving towards. Characters are almost always conscious of their goals. The character does not need to achieve their goal in order for the story to be satisfying, but if the protagonist doesn't achieve their goal, they should ideally have some kind of change of heart about it. A character can have multiple goals throughout the course of the story: a big goal that's broken into smaller goals, or goals that change and evolve in response to events. 
    • Motivation: Why the character does what they do. Motivation is usually tied to the protagonist's characterization and/or an event in their backstory. The goal is the what of the character's actions, motivation is the why. 
    • Conflict:  At its most basic, conflict is a struggle between opposing forces or characters. In Wattpad stories, this is usually created by the protagonist having a goal that is blocked by some other force. The friction between the protagonist wanting something and trying to get it is the conflict. Conflict can be internal or external. Stories can lean harder on one or the other, or have a mix of both.  
    • Conflict, External: External conflict is when the block to the character's goal is a person or force outside of their control. The story is about the protagonist defeating or failing to defeat the external block to achieve their goal(s). If the conflict is external, the story has an antagonist of some kind (either a person or a force). 
    • Conflict, Internal: Internal conflict is when a character struggles with their own beliefs, desires, and actions. The character is their own block to their goal(s), and the story is about them changing to be able to either achieve their goal(s) or let it go. For more on conflict, see this article.
    • Stakes: The consequences of the character's actions, their success or failure. Stakes answer the question, “why do these events matter?”

    The protagonist desires their GOAL because of their MOTIVATION but the struggle to attain it causes CONFLICT, which matters because of the STAKES.

    Let's look at some examples:

    In The Kissing Booth, Elle's GOAL is to date her best friend Lee's brother Flynn, her MOTIVATION is finding true love, the CONFLICT arises because she promised Lee she wouldn't date Flynn, and the STAKES are her lifelong friendship and future romantic happiness. 

    In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo's GOAL is to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron. His MOTIVATION is that the ring belonged to his uncle and he feels responsible for it. The CONFLICT arises because Sauron does not want him to destroy the ring and does his best to prevent it. The STAKES are the freedom of the entirety of Middle-Earth. 

    In Notting Hill, Will's GOAL is to date Anne, his MOTIVATION is love, the CONFLICT is the class/fame difference between them, and the STAKES are romantic happiness. 

    In The Hunger Games, Katniss' GOAL is to survive the Hunger Games, her MOTIVATION is to protect her sister, CONFLICT arises from the capital wanting to kill her to set an example, and the STAKES are the freedom of the downtrodden districts/freedom from tyranny of the capital

    In Finding Nemo, Marlin's GOAL is to find his lost son Nemo, his MOTIVATION is to keep his family safe after losing his wife, the CONFLICT is the various dangers in the ocean, and the STAKES are Nemo's life.

    In Daisy Jones and the Six, Daisy's GOAL is to become a successful musician, her MOTIVATION is to prove her parents wrong and claim her artistic agency, the CONFLICT arises from her creative and romantic relationship with her bandmate Billy, and the STAKES are her personal happiness and fulfillment 

    In Ted Lasso, Ted's GOAL is to make AFC Richmond successful, his MOTIVATION is to distract from his failing marriage, the CONFLICT arises because he doesn't know what he's doing and has secretly been set up to fail, and the STAKES are the professional reputations and personal happiness of him and his team. 

    For more on GMCS, see our character worksheet.

    In all cases, the characters' GMCS is dependent on the type of story the author wants to tell, which in turn dictates what kind of plot events will happen. The stakes and tone of The Kissing Booth, for instance, while important to the characters, are not life or death, so it would be tonally inappropriate for a knife fight to break out in the story. That would raise the plot tension, but it would break the fundamental promise of the story so far. Whereas in The Hunger Games, life and death stakes are always on the table, and a knife fight fits seamlessly into the world of the story and into the dramatic tension itself. 

    Good plotting is about deciding what kind of story you want to tell and what kinds of events are on the table. Setting out the GMCS for your protagonist before you begin allows you to create a story where character actions matter to the plot, and the story's scope, scale, and tone is cohesive and articulated through plot events. 

    Exercise: Try filling out the below GMCS sentence template for your story.

    The protagonist desires their GOAL because of their MOTIVATION but the struggle to attain it causes CONFLICT, which matters because of the STAKES.

    What kinds of plot events fit into the story you've just described? What kinds of things might happen in this story? Brainstorm and make a list. How do the events you've described contribute to the CONFLICT? 

    Beginning, Middle, End

    All narratives should have a beginning, middle, and end. Rather than being purely determined by word count, the beginning, middle, and end represent distinct phases that every story should move through. Each phase of the story has a unique function and builds successively on the ones before it.

    Beginning

    The beginning phase of the story is where you're working to create investment, meet the characters, introduce the conflict, and bring your reader into the world of the story through your characters' Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, and Stakes. This is not just scene-setting, it's about initiating the sequence of events that gets your story moving. The Beginning takes up approximately 25% of your story

    Common elements:

    • Introduce the hook in the first chapter
    • Inciting incident (if different from the hook)
    • Establishing goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes
    • Introduce the problem and how the protagonist(s) are going to respond to it
    • Who are the characters? What do they want and why?
    • The story tension rises throughout this section until a decisive event pushes us into the next phase

    Middle

    The middle of the story is where most of the action happens. The middle is also the bulk of the word count, and the bulk of where the reader spends their time. The promises you made in the Beginning come to fruition in the middle. This is where we spend time with the characters and experience their highs and lows as they deal with the ramifications of the Inciting Incident and their Goals. About 50% of your story should be the Middle. 

    Common Elements:

    • Raise the stakes and the story tension through character actions and reactions
    • Complicate the conflict/problem by adding sub-steps to the original goal, making the goal more difficult, or introducing additional obstacles the characters must overcome to reach their goal
    • Reveal more character backstory and explore motivations through the front story

    Unlike the Beginning,  the elements of the Middle can and should happen multiple times. While you only have one Inciting Incident, you can and should raise the stakes and complicate the conflict multiple times throughout the Middle. If you're having trouble thinking about how the middle should proceed, come back to your protagonist's GMCS. Given your protagonist's GMCS, what kinds of events would they find challenging? What would they find most challenging?  

    End

    The End is where the events of the Beginning and Middle come to their crisis. All the action of the Middle has fundamentally changed things for your characters. The problem created in the Inciting Incident and complicated throughout the Middle is now at a crisis point where the characters need to resolve it. The End comprises about 25% of your story.  

    Common Elements:

    • Bring the problem to its crisis
    • Sharply rising tension (fed by the Middle) that explodes into a climactic event
    • The Goal from the Beginning is either attained or lost
    • Demonstrate how the characters and the situation have changed as a result of the story

    Serialized Stories

    This format also works for Serialized stories. Even though they keep running, a serialized story should still have Beginning, Middle, and End phases. Rather than just being infinite Middle, successful Serial stories repeatedly run through Beginning, Middle and End phases of smaller story arcs. This allows you to keep your audience glued to the story's ups and downs, and to keep evolving the plot and characters. The only difference between a Serial story and a completed story is that the Beginning and Ending phases lead into one another. Each Beginning phase sets up a new problem for the characters to wrestle with over the course of the arc, and each Ending phase ties up that problem and sets the stage for a new one. 

    Return to the Storycoaster

    If all of this sounds familiar, that's because we've talked about similar things before when we talked about the Storycoaster. The Storycoaster is about building effective scenes that keep your reader engaged, but we can also look at the Storycoaster as a way of talking about story action and plot more broadly. 

    Here's our regular Storycoaster that describes a scene:

    Copy-of-Storycoaster2.png

    Image description: A black rollercoaster track with a car ascending. There are 4 sections of red text along the first portion of the wave: “Before it Happens” with a large arrow moving up the wave, “It Happens” at the peak of the wave, “Consequences” with a large arrow moving down the wave, and “What Changed?” at the bottom of the wave.

    For a review of these components, read our resource about using tension, conflict, and cliffhangers to engage readers.

    And here's our escalated Storycoaster, where we raise the story tension and conflict over the course of the story:

    STORYCOASTER-ESCALATING.png

    Image description: A black rollercoaster track with three peaks; each peak higher than the last. There is text in red at the lowest and highest point of each peak. The first line of text is at the lowest point of the first wave and reads “Beginning State”. The first peak reads “First Peak” and the lowest point after that peak reads “New Baseline”. The next peak is labeled “Higher Peak” and the low point after that is labeled “New Baseline”

    Review how to escalate the Storycoaster

    The escalated Storycoaster also functions as an illustration of Beginning, Middle, and End phases of the story.

    In the Beginning phase of the Storycoaster, the tension and conflict start out at a low point. The protagonist doesn't have that many problems to deal with, and the conflict is just getting started. As the Beginning phase progresses, each scene elaborates on the conflict, and by doing so, makes clear the protagonist's Goals, Motivations, and Stakes. We enter the Middle with a new baseline of tension, which then escalates over the course of this section as the protagonist tries to solve their Conflict and the Conflict keeps getting worse. The Conflict getting worse is what escalates the tension in this section. By the time we reach the highest peak of the Storycoaster, we're entering the End phase. All the conflict and tension we've built up throughout the story so far reaches its inevitable climax, and the Conflict from the beginning is finally resolved. On the way down, we get a sense of how the characters have changed due to their journey. 

    Long curving line Long curving line Long curving line