The plot describes the outward shape of your story. This is what people usually think of for a “story,” and what they will describe to you when you ask what a book or film is about. Unlike nonfiction in which you clearly present the material without leaving hanging questions, in fiction you should always have at least one, preferably many, intriguing bits and uncertainties throughout. The reader or viewer will eagerly continue to discover the answers to these points.
There are three large components of the plot that move it forward:
1. Story Goal and Story Question
Before you start writing, you need to know your STORY GOAL, which is the thing that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This goal needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is attained, or not, by the end of the story. Whether this goal is attained or not becomes the STORY QUESTION.
For example, in Lion King, Simba is the young (lion) heir to the throne when Scar engineers Simba’s father’s death to seize control. The story goal is for Simba to regain ownership of the kingdom. Failure occurs if Scar remains in control. The story question is: will Simba become king?
In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond is falsely imprisoned, then escapes and gains an enormous fortune. The story goal is that he wishes to take revenge on those who stole his youth, his career, and his fiancé. Failure occurs if the wrong doers get away with a great evil. The story question is: Will Edmond be able to suitably punish the guilty (without losing his integrity)?
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is a hobbit who comes into possession of the One Ring, which is the focus for evil power and greatly desired by many. The story goal is that Frodo must destroy this ring. Failure occurs if the ring is not destroyed. The story question is: Will Frodo be able to destroy the One Ring?
You also need to decide why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he could just go home and eat dinner instead of knock his socks off to achieve. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved?
For example, in The Lion King if Simba does not become king, Scar will govern as a tyrant, and irrevocably ruin the Pridelands and let the hyenas take control.
In The Count of Monte Cristo if Edmond cannot wreak an appropriate revenge, great evil will go unpunished.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, if Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring, Middle Earth will fall into chaos and horror under Sauron’s dominion.
If your protagonist can simply go and achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, that hold the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to NEVER MAKE IT EASY ON YOUR HERO.
For example, in Lion King Simba is a little cub who runs away when his father is killed. He must grow up, learn that he needs to fight for his kingdom, then battle hyenas and ultimately Scar. Internally he must overcome feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
In The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond must learn to live alone in prison, then to escape, then to find the men responsible to wreak his revenge. His revenges are elaborate and full of twists. Internally Edmond copes with rage, power, and losing and gaining love. He also grapples with the role of mercy mixed with justice.
In The Fellowship of the Rings Frodo must make his way past the Nasgul and fights Orcs, rough terrain, Gollum, and other varied creatures and problems. Internally he finds carrying the Ring of Power an almost unbearable burden.
There is obviously much more to a plot than just these three plot components. However, if you don’t get these right, you won’t HAVE a story!
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