‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’
– Somerset Maugham
A plot is the skeleton of a story, and is therefore essential to any work of fiction. If you plan on writing a story without a plot, don’t even expect your mother to read it, yet alone the rest of the world. In this guide, we’re going to outline a bulletproof formula to plan and establish a solid plot for your story. This system was developed by James Scott Bell, author of the book Plot & Structure, and is very easy to remember – it’s called the LOCK system.
The History of Plot in Fiction
But first, let’s all sit in a small circle and reminisce on the history of plot. In 350BC, the philosopher Aristotle decided that plot was the most important element in drama, even more important than characters, so he insisted that all plots should have a beginning, middle and an end. Aristotle developed a pyramid that he called ‘The Unified Plot’. The triangle shape, which he no doubt drew in the sand to others amazement, had the words ‘Beginning’, ‘Middle’ and ‘End’ written on the triangle’s three points. Genius, right?
This might seem obvious to us now, but back in Aristotle’s day this would’ve been a big development and coming up with this pyramid would have no doubt earned him a lot of women and respect. Then along came some guy called Gustav Freytag; he saw Aristotle’s women, he saw his fame, and he wanted a piece of the action. So he took Aristotle’s triangle and added some stuff to it. He also found a bigger stick to draw it in the sand with. The result: Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag also changed some of the words around, instead of Beginning he chose Exposition and instead of End he used Denoument, and most importantly, he replaced the word Middle with Climax. This was no doubt an attempt to get the ladies hot. Here is Freytag’s triangle outlined just for you:
This is the beginning of the novel. It is where the writer introduces all, or most, of the main characters that will appear throughout the story. Its primary purpose is to introduce the protagonist and describe what sort of character he or she is. This part of the novel is also used to describe the setting, which is especially important in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, where the reader needs to be able to visualise where the story is actually taking place. The exposition is a critical stage of the novel, as it needs to ‘hook’ the reader in and make them want to keep reading. You don’t need to flesh your characters out just yet, but it is crucial to make a good first impression for the reader here. Don’t tell us too much about your characters at this stage and avoid bombing the reader with information about anything. Being introduced to a character in a book is like meeting someone in real life – if you know their life story within seconds of meeting them, what point is there in getting to know them? You lose interest. Treat your characters like onions and give them layers that are gradually revealed to the reader. Give them layers that even they don’t know about, layers of deep rooted desires and motivations, and then fill their core with secrets… scary secrets. Once the exposition is over, the next part of the plot begins, or thickens – the introduction of conflict.
This is where the novel accumulates tension; build it to a point where it is like a guitar string that has been wound too tightly, then hold it. Gradually increase the tension until the novel’s climax, where the string will snap. The reader should be kept on the edge of their seat, so as a writer you have to aim to keep reader’s up at night reading or thinking about what will happen next. The tension doesn’t have to be physical, it can be psychological, but it needs to have some sort of rising action. Generally this phase of the novel involves the protagonist (and the reader) understanding his/her mission, and the starting steps towards realising it. Problems need to arise at this stage of the novel, therefore any obstacle to get in the way of the lead character is essential, even the protagonist can be an obstacle to him/herself. You can’t have a novel where nothing happens, well you can, but no one will read it and loved ones will pretend to have read it at best. At the completion of this phase, the protagonist can finally see his/her goal in sight and can go towards it without obstruction.
This is when all that tension you’ve built up starts to unravel, much to the reader’s excitement. At this stage of the novel, the protagonist’s qualities really have to shine through – the reader must see the lead character in a tense situation and see how they deal with it. This is where the fate of the story and its characters start to reveal itself. The climax is a point of no turning back, for the characters and the reader. Unless it’s a ‘choose your own ending’ type story (I hope it isn’t) then the reader is forced to read on and accept whatever decisions you as a writer make for your characters. The ending you write is the ending your readers have to read, so don’t disappoint! Generally, a final confrontation of some sort should take place now.
This is where all the pieces are collected and the loose ends are tied. The reader is being parachuted down from above and needs some time to absorb everything that has happened in your climax. It is up to you how often you do this. You can, if you like, have a succession of mini climaxes followed by ‘rest’ periods of shorter and shorter duration and then end it with a big climax. I’m not going to tell you how to write your story, but that is an effective technique to consider. Readers will be aware that they are reaching the end of the novel when they hit this stage, so naturally this part of the plot can often be the most tense and exciting. It is a good idea at this time to reveal details about characters and situations that were unknown prior. This phase ends, cools off, and starts off again as the end of the story – the resolution of the hero’s adventure.
This is the final stage of the story, and is the exact opposite of the beginning exposition phase. Instead of setting the scene where the story begins and takes place, it sets the after scene – the events following the climax/falling action phases. This is usually where the protagonist and antagonist have a final showdown, or if the protagonist is his/her own antagonist, this is where he/she comes to terms with him or herself. This is where everything is put into place, and therefore it might take the longest time to write. A lot of writers draft this part of the novel first so that they are aware of how best to bring the story to this point from page one. Make sure that when you’re writing this stage you often stand back and read it as though you were reading someone else’s work: are you satisfied with the way the story is ending? It’s always useful to take a break from writing and revise it after a couple of weeks or months, to give you time to develop a fresh perspective. A fresh perspective to your own work can help you to adjust the flow and correct bits and pieces that you might’ve missed earlier.
If you’re in the process of writing your own novel then I hope your plot contains all of the above elements, if not then it’s back to the drawing… err… writing board! You should always have these questions in your head when you are designing the plot of your story:
- What’s this story about?
- Is anything happening?
- Why should I keep reading?
- Why should I care?
The LOCK System
The L.O.C.K System – LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout
L is for Lead
A strong plot starts with an interesting lead character – someone the reader won’t mind following for the whole novel. Make the character human, draw from your own self for inspiration; reader’s have to be able to relate to the character on some level.
O is for Objective
Objective is the driving force of fiction; it generates forward motion and keeps the lead from just sitting around. An objective can take 2 forms.
- To get something
- To get away from something.
C is for Confrontation
Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story fully to life. Readers want to worry about the lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement all the way through the novel.
- Get your protagonist up a tree
- Throw rocks at him
- Then get him down.
K is for Knockout
Just like how we watch boxing for the knockout at the end, we also read novels to be led to an ending with knockout power. ‘Woah, I didn’t see that coming, you hit me good!’ is what you want your readers to say after the knockout. Even better, you don’t want them to say anything; you want them to cry from pain. We want to feel the ending weeks, even years after the final punch. A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak (your mum will get a nice big surprise at this point, because any other reader would have put it in the trash if the build up to the end sucked). But a weak ending will leave the reader with a feeling of disappointment, even if the book up to that point was strong.
And there you have it, the LOCK system: a lead with an intense objective, thrust into confrontation, runs through the story until it ends. The objectives can be external or internal, the confrontations physical or psychological, but either way the LOCK system works.
Some writers object to thinking about plot because it may lead to formulaic writing. These writers miss a critical distinction – why does something become a formula in the first place? Because it works! Just like a chef uses a recipe to create a basic meal, so does a writer use a plot formula to construct a story. The outcome in either cases can be bad or it can be good, but if you follow a formula there is less room for error. There is still room for improvisation, and it is up to you as a literary chef to add all the right ingredients (interesting characters, exciting tension, vivid settings etc) and spices (dialogue, vivid descriptions, flowing narrative prose etc) to make it all work, and taste good! You want the reader to lick the plate after and ask for seconds, not wait until you look the other way so they can feed it to the dog. Below is a short description of some of the elements that make up a good plot.
‘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’ – The Art of Creative Writing
Can you take us to a place we’ve never been before? That will enliven any plot. Setting also includes the details of life surrounding the lead character, 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 by interviewing an expert about it. Whatever you do, don’t show characters practicing their chosen professions in the same old predictable way. Dig deeper and find original details. You can still write about archetypal characters like cops and detectives, but give them updated challenges and settings.
Dialogue is a great opportunity to spice up your plots, so don’t waste it! Dialogue helps to create original characters and move the plot along. If it isn’t doing either of those things, it should probably be cut. Make sure your characters have unique ways of speaking. No two characters should sound exactly alike; the words they use should tell us something about who they are. It’s critical to make sure dialogue is necessary to the plot or development of characters or settings, and to make sure it flows. Don’t stress your head thinking about how to come up with different ways of writing ‘He said’ or ‘She said’. The reader will notice, and this is very bad because it means the reader will become aware that they are reading a book and not a flowing, natural dialogue.
If there was ever an eject button in a book then this is it, it will eject the reader out of their quiet little zone and they will feel dogged. They will be reminded that there is a writer behind these words trying to impress you with their fantastic word artistry. Don’t do it. It’s fine to omit ‘He said/She Said’ entirely and just let the dialogue flow, as long as it has been established which line of dialogue belongs to which character (works best when two people are conversing – read Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game for an excellent example of this – every chapter begins with dialogue between two characters). Always begin a new line of dialogue on a new line, for example:
Alex swallows his breath and walks over to the girl on the swing, “Hey” he says hesitantly.
“How’s your day?” Alex squeaks.
“Good, thanks” she looks at her feet and then back up at Alex, “how’s yours?…”
Alex runs away.
And there you have it. Rich dialogue that flows like a river under a picturesque mountain. Take note!
Our minds naturally jump to clichés as we decide what to write next. That’s why it’s necessary to develop the sort of imagination that considers several possibilities before deciding which scene to write. Writing is a lot like chess in this regard. You can do this just by pausing, writing a quick list of possibilities, and waiting for something to click. Do this with the scene you’re currently writing.
Here are a couple of writing exercise which will help you sharpen your pencil and finish writing that novel! Try to see the LOCK system in everything you read, watch, or play and try to utilise it in your own writings. The LOCK system dwells in anything with a plot.
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