Plot Is The Engine Of Your Novel

As you will already know, the plot is the main story of a novel. The question is whether you should work out a detailed plot before you start to write or not.

If you are aiming to write a blockbuster, then the answer is a resounding YES. You will remember the first tip: “The Story is Everything” and how without a properly worked out story, you have nothing. Working out that story is called plotting.

Whether or not you plot in advance, once you have written your novel, it will have a storyline. The difference between a novel that’s written “on the hoof” without detailed planning and one that’s closely-plotted, could well be the difference between one that will never be published and one that sells a million copies.

Bestsellers, especially in the fields of thrillers, suspense, mystery, adventure and so on, are invariably carefully plotted. Their authors spent a long time working out stories that will please and excite their readers.

I’m always amazed at writers who would not set out on a fifty mile journey without an up-to-date road map and yet think nothing of embarking on a novel without any idea as to their eventual destination. And there are a thousand more chances of getting lost in a novel as there are in a fifty mile road trip!

Remember the old saying: “Fail to plan, plan to fail”

In my view, having a plot is crucial. It doesn’t have to be detailed, at least to start with. Something as simple as “During World War II the German High Command parachute an elite group of stormtroopers into England to assassinate Churchill” (The Eagle Has Landed  by Jack Higgins).

The Thriller writer Ken Follett uses a similar technique to plot his books. He starts with a single phrase and keeps building on it until he ends up with a multi-page synopsis he can write from. He turns the sentence into a paragraph, then into two paragraphs, and so on…

All the time you have to ask yourself, “What can happen now?” To add an extra dimension, make this a two-stage process. Think of the most obvious outcome, ignore that, then think of something else. Avoid making your story predictable or boring in every way you can.For detailed plotting advice, check out my book, Million Dollar Story

Conflict: Be Kind To Your Reader By Being Cruel To Your Hero

Give your protagonist a hard time. Not because you should behave like a sadist but because conflict and adversity are what drives your story along.

If, for example, you are writing the script of a Road Movie in which your protagonist travels from Chicago to Los Angeles and nothing bad happens to him the whole way, then that would be one very boring movie. If, on the other hand, he were chased by a mad trucker, shot at by bikers and blown up in a diner, that’d obviously be much better.

Give your hero a worthy antagonist and make things look hopeless for him. Put obstacles in his way. If it looks like he’s about to succeed at something, snatch it away before it can happen.

One of my favourite ploys is to give my hero a small victory, only to have it snatched away shortly afterwards. If I can, I always try and make the “small victory” a step towards his ultimate crisis. For example, he can rescue his “friend” from the “bad guys”, only to discover that he is really a spy, sent to inform on him.

By the way, throughout this blog, “he” and “she” are interchangeable. Your protagonist can be male or female, you simply have to tailor the obstacles facing him or her to suit the circumstances, which include gender.

Pile on the pressure from outside. If your hero is unjustly convicted and on the run, make ordinary, law-abiding citizens his enemies. Children should tell on him, people he thinks of as friends must give him up to the law.

And Nature and the elements should play their part. If the protagonist is hiding out, turn the night-time temperature down to minus ten. Blow away his shelter. Soak him in torrential rain. Poison his water.

The tougher things are for your hero and the tougher the opposition that faces him, the better your story will be. You want the reader to think, “How does he cope? If that was me, I’d give in.” It’s usually good if your protagonist is more driven and more committed than the average reader would consider him or herself to be.