Quinn’s Tips & Tricks: How To Build A Dynamic Story (Part Three: The Plot)

A Quick Little Guide to Plot Development

So you have your world and your characters, what next? Well, they have to have a story. There has to be a “what if,” a driving force, and a mission to complete. The plot may be as complicated or as simple as the story allows- but it is still important. Without a plot, the world and the characters are just floating in empty space, with no direction. The plot is that direction- it’s the pull, and the charm, and it affects the character just as much as any other story element does.

So what makes up a good story? Breaking stories down to the most basic level may seem juvenile, but it is the best way to understand plot and its effect on the story- as well as the readers. At the most basic level, a story only has three elements: the beginning, the middle, and the end. You can also look at this as Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Regardless of what it is called, every story must have it- and yes, cliff hangers count as an ending. But plot goes beyond just a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each section of this structure has more moving parts that need to be thought about and put into motion before writing can even begin. Knowing at least the very basics of your plot before you start writing will help keep the story on track.

Now, this blog isn’t going to be a soap box rant about why plotting is better than pantsing. While I myself am a hard core plotter, and as such my advice may be a little biased, there are benefits and drawbacks of both kinds of plot development. Going into a story knowing too much can bog down the writing, or cause the writing to feel rigid and constricted. Go in knowing too little, and you risk having a plot that is inconsistent and discombobulated.

The secret to good plot development is finding a safe middle ground to work in. Know just enough to know where you’re going, but not so much that the plot becomes overbearing and complicated. Start from the very basics of plot and build from there. While it may seem tempting to try and fill every single plot hole, and know every single side quest- know when to take a step back, and let your plot have room to breathe.

Here are some steps you can take to help, and different story structures you can use to help plan:

  • Start with a “what if?”
    • Basically, this is the very very basic overall concept for your story. Something like this:
      • What if a troubled kid found an amulet that lets them travel through time?
      • What if a nuclear family moved into a haunted house?
      • What if a small town cheerleader was murdered?
    • There is no need to be super specific. This should be bare bones, one sentence at the most. Now, I’m very plot oriented, so when I do my What-Ifs, I tend to jump straight to what the plot is, but it is also very helpful to add in character. This is especially helpful if you are doing an “elevator-pitch,” because it allows the agent (or whoever you are pitching to) to get an idea of a character. Little modifiers like “troubled kid,” “nuclear family,” and “small-town cheerleader” give that kind of insight- I’m not talking anything super fancy.
  • Turn the What if into a Controlling Idea
    • This idea should be no more than one sentence, and include:
      • The MC and how they change (implied or stated)
      • Location
      • Opposition
      • Catalyst (Inciting Incident)
    • A form to follow is something like:
      • When this thing happens to this character, the character must do/overcome this other thing/change in order to fix this problem/grow as a person.
      • or
      • When [incert character] [inciting incedent], [character] must [overcome obstacle/opposition] in order to [character’s goal/problem to overcome].
    • Which looks really confusing, but it is really helpful. If I were going to do this with one of my stories, let’s say Halo: The Unchained, it would look something like this:
      • When a runaway teenage mutant’s birth mother shows up at summer camp at the same time a disaster threatens the lives of his classmates, he must choose to either join forces with other mutants and save the day, at the cost of exposing himself, or remain in the shadows.
    • Another example of this, using my upcoming story Insanity’s Wish, would look something like this:
      • When a soft-spoken girl learns that her father has been captured in the war, she must travel across enemy territory and befriend the enemy’s Prince in order to save her father’s life and take back her city.
    • Of course, there is so much more involved in both of those plots that are not mentioned in these sentences, but they give a very basic broad outline of the story. They also set up a character and a problem for those characters to overcome. Once you get this sentence down, you can start playing around with plot arcs and fleshing out the story. While these two steps aren’t necessary to plotting, they are very helpful if you are in the very beginning stages of planning out a story.
  • Before you begin outlining and tinkering with plot points and significant events, ask yourself these questions:
    1. Who is the hero?
    2. What do they want?
    3. What is the opposition?
    4. How does the hero change?
    5. What is the lesson/theme?
    6. What do you want the audience to feel?
  • Once you have a basic idea of these things, you can move on to story skeletons. There are many different kinds of plot skeletons, so choose the one that works best for you. This may be an in-depth chapter by chapter outline, or the classic “once upon a time” model. Regardless of which one you use, make sure you hit the basic beginning middle and end structure. You can even use many different structures to help put your story in new perspectives and view the story in new ways.
    • The Beginning, Middle, and End structure
      • This structure is as simple as it sounds- it covers where the story starts, three significant events that lead up to the climax, and the resolution of the story.
      • The beginning section should include who your main character is, what their goal is, what their “known world” is, and finally, the catalyst that brings them from the known world to the unknown world. The catalyst is basically just something happens that jump starts the rest of the plot. Without this significant event, the character journey would never begin, so make sure you know what that event is.
      • The middle section consists of three (or more) plot points of increasing intensity that leads the character up to the climax of the story- basically, these are the rising actions. But the most important thing to note here is that the events must get more and more intense- you want the reader to be on the edge of their seats, and pull them through to the climax. You want to make it so that the reader has to know what is going to happen next. Increasing intensity can be done with action, character relations, drama, uncovered secrets- anything that is interesting and pulls the reader to the final BANG- in other words, the climax. Be wary of having a rising action outshine your climax- you don’t want the reader to reach the climax and be disappointed.
      • The end section is the falling action. What has the character gained from this experience? How have they changed? What are they bringing back to their known world now that they have been through the middle section? Can they even go back? Are they the same person they were? All of these questions should be answered with the end section. You want to leave the reader satisfied, and tie up any loose ends you don’t plan on covering in another story (such as another book, or a side series).
    • The “Once Upon A Time” Structure
      • This structure is a little more in-depth than the simple beginning middle and end structure, but follows a pretty rigid story arch. It is useful for developing new stories, but in my experience, trying to shove an already developed plot into this structure can be frustrating. Still, it is a very helpful skeleton if it is more helpful to have a fill-in-the-blank type of story spine. You can use this spine as a start, and go from there!
        • Once upon a time (there was a)…
        • And every day…
        • Until one day…
        • And because of that…
        • And because of that…
        • And because of that…
        • Until finally…
        • And since that day…
        • And the moral of the story is…
      • I’ve seen a few other versions of this structure online, but this is the one I learned. (Fun fact: It’s also the structure Pixar uses!) If this kind of fill in the blank structure works for you, play around with it a little! It doesn’t need to be a perfect, clean outline if you’re not using it for a pitch, so don’t get too wrapped up in it.
    • Worksheet structures!
      • There are dozens of worksheets online that are simple, fill in the blank boxes and plot arcs that can be used for quick, easy plotting. It can be a little frustrating if you want to find a very specific worksheet to use, but in general, they can be pretty helpful. Here are a few examples of these worksheets:
      • There is so much more out there that you can find and download- some are pretty simple, and others very in depth. Just find the one that works best for you and go with that!
    • The Three Act Structure
      • The three act structure is falling out of popularity partially because of its rigid, separated structure, when the arc of a story should be more free-flowing and continuous. However, some still regard this structure as the only way to plot a story. It really depends on how you apply the structure to your story, but really, it’s just a fancier version of the Beginning/Middle/End structure, and it can be a helpful way to think through the steps of your story.
        • Act One (The Set Up)
          • Hook/Opening Scene
          • Who is the protagonist?
          • What is the problem?
          • Who are the allies/mentors/love interests?
          • What is the setting?
          • Who is the antagonist? (Or, set up a mystery if the antagonist isn’t going to be revealed until later)
          • Inciting Incident!
          • Stakes
            • What does the hero have to gain/lose?
          • Plot point one/Turning point one
        • Act Two (The Middle)
          • Crossing the Threshold/Into the special world
          • Series of tests/Obstacles
          • The Midpoint
            • Game changer
            • Locks the hero into a situation/action
            • Can be a huge revelation/defeat/”now it’s personal” loss
          • Recalibrating after shock of midpoint
          • Escalating actions
          • Hard choices/Crossing the line
          • Loss of Key Allies
          • Reveals/Revelations/Twists
          • “All Is Lost”
          • Act Two Climax
            • Final revelation before the end game
        • Act Three (The Final Battle/Resolution) 
          • The third act is basically the final battle and the resolution. The final showdown has two parts:
            • Storming the castle
            • The battle itself
          • It should include:
            • Thematic location
            • The protagonist’s character change
            • The antagonist’s character change (if any)
            • Allies changes/gaining of desire (if any)
            • Could be one last huge reveal/twists, or a series of final payoffs you’ve been saving
          • And finally, the resolution
            • a glimpse into the new way of life that the hero is living after the final battle, and what they have learned.
            • Optional: A new conflict emerges
      • People sometimes break up Act Three into two acts, and make act three the final battle/main climax and Act Four the resolution, but it’s really just about organization.
    • The Plot Arc Structure
      • Spoiler alert: I made this one up. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what else to call it. Basically, this is my version of an actual plot arc (you know, the thing that looks like _/\_) but without the actual visual, and it takes plot structure and story structure and just… blends it into one thing. I tackle both what happens and how it happens at the same time. I find it difficult and cumbersome to stick to the rigid “here’s the beginning, now write three significant plot points, now the climax, and bang! Here’s the end!” I prefer to start from the beginning and list out, step by step, how I want the story to go. Honestly, I don’t even break it up into Beginning/Middle/End at first. I just go through the scenes I want to happen, mark the climax, and revise as I see necessary. If you prefer lists, then this is a very easy way to be as simple or complex as you want when going through a story, and it helps lay out how scenes actually flow into one another.
    • Chapter Outlines
      • Now, for this, you need to have a basic idea of how many chapters you want the novel to be. “Basic” is the key word here- you won’t really know how you want to break up chapters until you sit down to write the novel, and you shouldn’t stick super rigidly to the timeline you create here. This is also better to do after you have done another structure (such as the plot arc). You start this structure by introducing your characters and your conflict, and then just separate out events you want to happen in your story into different chapters. This can be helpful if you like having an idea of where/how to break up chapters before-hand.

I hope these structures are useful to you guys! Remember, there is no wrong way to plot a story. Do whatever feels right for you, and if you need a little help or start to feel overwhelmed, it’s ok to experiment with other structures. If I were to give any tips to you guys it would basically just be: write everything down, don’t be afraid to revise, and always keep everything having to do with your story in the same place.

If you have any questions or want me to elaborate on a specific part of this guide, leave a comment. If you have a suggestion or something you want to see me write on for another Tips & Tricks blog, let me know and I’ll see if I can get to it. For more tips on how to build a dynamic story, look for the other Tips & Tricks guides for world and character building.

Until next time!




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