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Writing Tips: How to Develop a Plot

Traditional plot development traces the action of the plot through exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but not all writers conceptualize their plots this way.

Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing suggests three ways to look at your story. These three, story as a journey, story as a power struggle, and story as connection and disconnection, can be compatible with the traditional plot arc.

  1. Story as Journey In this type of plot one force or being will encounter another which will force change. Your plot, then, becomes the story of that change. Thinking of your story as a journey creates questions like "where is your protagonist going and why does he want to go there?” and “what are the obstacles that hinder your protagonist?” Ultimately, the story will end with the goal of the protagonist being fulfilled or left unfulfilled.

  2. Story as a Power Struggle In this model, your plot will center around the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist. The antagonist can be a person, nature, society, the protagonist himself, or any other force that is at odds with the protagonist. Plot is seen through the lens of “conflict, crisis, and resolution.” Tensions will be built through shifts in power and rising stakes until eventually one side prevails.

  3. Story as Connection or Disconnection This type focuses on the connection and disconnection in the relationships between characters. Tension and conflict are created through the interaction between human characters.

Mary Kole in Writing Irresistible Kidlit offers yet another way to think of plot: the emotional plot which focuses on the protagonist’s experience and emotions throughout the story. It begins with a norm—whatever the protagonist’s life looked like on a daily basis before the inciting incident. The inciting incident kicks off the action of your plot and somehow disturbs the protagonist’s norm. Following this, there should be an emotional rise and an emotional fall. When your character hits rock-bottom, “This is the instant that your character decides to risk everything and engage in the Climax” (163). The climax is then followed by an evening out which leads your character to a new normal at the resolution of the story. This plot model is helpful to some because it focuses on what is happening to your character, how they feel, and how they respond, which keeps the plot centered on the protagonist throughout.

Some writers ditch the plot outline altogether in favor of winging their way through a story. This works for some who feel constrained by outlines and neat little charts. That being said, a plot outline can be changed or completely thrown out if it isn’t useful or your story is moving in a direction you hadn’t anticipated, so it can never hurt to try mapping out your plot in advance. It can even be helpful when you are stuck to consider the plot arc you are attempting to create. So, if you have reached a point where you do not know what needs to happen next in your story and the traditional plot arc isn’t inspiring you, try out one of these other models to see what works best for you.

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