As the world cautiously opens up after the Covid-19 lockdown, I’m exploring some ways to get those writing muscles back up to speed. Not long ago I was asked to explain the difference between plot and story structure but held off while we dealt with our “new normal.” We’re still dealing, but I’ll tackle the question here. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.
Plot is what happens in your story. Structure is how you show the plot unfolding. It makes your readers eager to learn what happens next.
Some writers resist plotting, afraid of losing interest if they know everything that happens. I used to be the opposite, obsessively plotting, afraid of running out of content. Over time I learned to plot the major events and turning points and let the characters supply the rest.
A rough plot is a road map, not a prison. It provides the reassurance of a desired ending while allowing the flexibility to make changes to the story as we write.
As I always say, there’s no one way to write, only what works for you. Try some of these approaches until you find your best fit.
An excellent guide to structure comes from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, and uses the code, ABCD.
A = Action
Action isn’t all shoot-outs and car chases. It’s when something happens before the reader’s eyes instead of in flashback or summary. My romantic suspense, Desert Justice, opens when the heroine gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the ruling sheikh. An action scene can happen in an office, if the new boss is accusing a character of passing sensitive information to a competitor.
B = Background
Only sketch in enough background to let the reader know what’s going on.
Recently on TV’s Master Chef, each contestant was given a photo of themselves with a person who’d influenced their career or made sacrifices for them. They had to cook a dish to symbolise the connection. Thanks to this superb snippet of background, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
There’s a family connection in Desert Justice, too. She’s looking for her mother’s brother and needs the sheikh’s help. The brother is conspiring against the sheikh, but we don’t learn this until much later.
C = Conflict
Romance readers know the characters are attracted to each other. Conflict is what keeps them apart. It must be strong enough to last throughout the story and must be be solvable, not based on something they can’t change, such as their ethnicity.
They also need goals they desperately want to reach. My heroine wants to find her long-lost uncle. Since he threatens the sheikh’s life, their goals are in conflict. According to Hollywood writing guru, Michael Hauge, the goals must be visible so we know whether or not they are attained. Internal goals such as the need for love, happiness or personal growth come secondary to achieving the external goals.
D = Development
Development means creating the events your characters experience while moving away from or closer to their goals. Think of development as a journey. What stops must be made on the way from first meeting to happy-ever-after? This forms your story structure, whether detailed road map, rough outline or any combination to suit your writing preferences.
Development can mirror a real journey like The Odyssey or Thelma and Louise. A learning curve: think Beauty and the Beast. Or a suspenseful tale such as my Desert Justice.
Regardless of the story you wish to tell, using ABCD will get you there. Start where the problem starts – Beauty being stuck with the Beast, or my heroine caught up in a plot against the sheikh. Think big life changes – a bride left at the altar; a property dispute that could leave your character homeless. Drop readers right in the middle of the situation and go from there.
Give your characters interesting, page-turning challenges. What’s the very last thing the character wants to do? Leave them no option but to do that. Show us what they go through physically and emotionally. Push them to the brink. All events should be like links in a chain: cause – effect; bigger cause – bigger effect, biggest cause – OMG I can’t do this – they do it anyway, ultimate climax – satisfactory ending.
The ending should resolve the conflict between them, leading to the happy-ending they never thought they could have. Take your time with the ending. Show how they’ve grown and changed. Think A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sends the urchin to buy the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop. He’s laughing when he pays for the bird, letting us see how far he’s come emotionally. Increasing emotions in your characters puts readers in touch with their own emotions, IMO the reason most of us read fiction.
A strong, clear structure gives you room to let readers share the emotional journey. My writing muse, Gene Roddenberry, called it “straight lining the story.” Yes, I give them goals to strive for and actions to take, each leading to the next as the stakes get higher and higher. But these days, I don’t keep them endlessly busy. I give them space to figure out what they need to do and, most importantly, how they feel along the way.
Do you plot as you go, or let characters lead the way? Neither is right or wrong, only what works for you. Share your thoughts in the comment panel below. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but comments can appear immediately if you click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.
Valerie is a Member of the Order of Australia
Author of 90 books in 29 languages
Australia Day Ambassador
Life Member, Romance Writers of Australia
Australian Society of Authors’ medal recipient
Represented by The Tate Gallery Pty Ltd, Sydney