Three Recipes For a Better Plot

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”– Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back Producer Gary Kurtz, LA Times interview

You have this great idea for a story. There will be this amazing main character that’s great with a bow, some interesting minor characters, a horrendous villain with a large burn mark covering his arms, and everything takes place in this giant city that runs on recycled vegetable oils. So yeah. Awesome.


But then what?

Obviously your story has to have at least some meat to it. A build-up. Maybe the villain steals all the vegetable oil and hordes it for his evil robot-making factory and plans to take over the city. There needs to be a fight. The main character is just about defeated when he shoots a fiery arrow at the factory, destroying the robot army and the villain. Your character should experience love and loss. His beloved banana slug is lost in all the chaos. [Just for the record: I just came up with this story in my head, but it’s not the one I’m working on now. You’ll have to tune in later for a sneak peek of that. 😉 ]

You want your story to be not just good, but great.  You’re going to need a killer plot.

Lucky for you, you won’t have to do this all on your own. Whether you’re a novice writer or an award-winning author, more than likely you started with some sort of format. Here’s three different structures– there are dozens out there to choose from– to get those brain juices flowing.

Follow an Archetype

(Take the Hero’s Journey for example…)

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You’ve probably seen a version of the Hero’s Journey plot and not even realized it. Let’s see. Star Wars. Finding Nemo. Lilo and Stitch. Greek Mythology. Almost all the Harry Potter books. Even though this mold is used over and over, it still doesn’t get old. People just love this archetype. It just comes in about a million different versions.

Typically, this plot starts something like this. This is just a brief description. You can go into more detail here.

  1. Call to Adventure– The main character encounters a problem that forces him into the adventure.
  2. Refusal of the Call– The hero tries to deny the call to adventure because of fear.
  3. Crossing the First Threshold– The main character may physically and/or mentally leave their world and explores the unknown.
  4. Challenges and Temptations– The real adventure and meat of the book. Your character will face several ordeals that will help them develop character.
  5. The Abyss– The abyss will be the greatest challenge he or she will need to face and will force them to change.
  6. Transformation– By overcoming the abyss, the main character has reached their full potential.
  7. Atonement– This is the point by which your character becomes content with their decisions.
  8. Return– The return to regular day life.

The Three-Act Structure

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Most movies are formed after this structure. It’s fairly straight forward and can be as flexible or direct as you wish. It helps make stories flow but, if done incorrectly may result in an unoriginal feeling idea. As you might have already suspected from the name, there are three acts to this process…

Act One:

This act takes about a quarter of the novel is the first part in your book. Usually it goes over the basic premises: who your characters are and what the problem and conflict of your story will be/is. Towards the end of act one your reader should be invested into your novel and ready to set off into adventure!

Act Two:

Taking up almost half of the book on its own, this large chunk is the adventure behind your book. Your character meets their allies, mentors, love interests, etc. while also overcoming huge obstacles and challenges as well. Your character will probably fail more than he or she succeeds, which makes the story interesting. Eventually they will meet the largest obstacle (remember the Abyss?) and hopefully overcome that as well.

Act Three:

How exciting! Act three has the story’s climax and wraps the story up. In other words, they may defeat the villain and return to regular life while growing as a person and character in the process.

The Rubix Cube Structure

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This plotting method was introduced in one of the Nanowrimo (to those who don’t know, that’s National Novel Writing Month) forums and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s an out of the box experience (no pun intended) that really gets you thinking about your story.

It’s a bit hard to describe, so I guess I’ll just quote the original author.

Note: I did not come up with the following idea. It’s unclear who created it first, but here’s the site where it was found.

 “ 1 Triggering event

First thing’s first. What happens? Why have you bothered to write a book, and more importantly, why should a reader invest time flipping through its pages. Your triggering event is the answer to those
questions, so make it a good one. Also, don’t make the reader wait very long for it. First page, first paragraph, first sentence. These are good spots for a triggering event.

2 Characterization

Generally, books succeed or fail on the strength of their characters more so than on the strength of their plots. The second box is where you explore what makes your protagonist tick. No, this isn’t an excuse for drawn out exposition, history, or back story. If your triggering event is captivating, the reader will discover enough about the protagonist in Box Two simply by reading how he or she reacts to the event.

3 First major turning point

By now, your plot is picking up steam, and because of Box Two, the reader is invested in the ride. Time to throw a curve ball. This turning point can be either a positive event for your protagonist, or a negative one, but it should lay the groundwork for the negative turning point in the sixth square. There is a reason these boxes are touching one another; they interrelate. For example, Box Three may introduce the motivation of the antagonist, which then justifies the events in the sixth square.

4 Exposition

You’ve earned some time to fill the reader in on important data. Since this box touches the first square, here’s where you shed some light on that triggering event. Since it also touches Box Seven, you get to foreshadow your protagonist’s darkest hour. Box Four often reveals a relationship, character flaw, or personal history that contributes to the dark times in ahead.

5 Connect the dots

Here is where many plots fall apart. Box Five represents the trickiest part of fiction and since Box Five is the center of the book it must connect to all the squares around it. Kind of like the nucleus at the center of a bomb, Box Five should tick systematically upon elements introduced in Box Two and Four. And like the calm before the storm, the fifth square should give the false impression of resolution before heading like a freight train to Box Six. Most importantly, it needs to provide foreshadowing for the protagonist’s revelation in Box Eight. That’s a lot for a little box to do, but focus on efficient prose to get it right. Your plot depends upon it.

6 Negative turning point

Here’s where that bomb explodes and all (word censored) breaks loose. Good thing you laid the groundwork in Box Three. Good thing, too, that Box Nine will deliver some just desserts.

7 Antagonist wins

The protagonist is defeated here, and the antagonist apparently wins. How the protagonist deals with the darkest hour of defeat depend upon the traits and/or story developed in Box Four, which leads to his or her revelation in the next square.

8 Revelation

Of course! The protagonist’s revelation turns the tide. Here is where the protagonist connects the dots and overcomes the obstacles of Boxes Six and Seven via the device introduced in Box Five.

9 Protagonist wins

The negative turning point in Box Six is rectified while the character’s resolve from Box Eight is brought into full bloom. Congratulations! Another great tale told greatly. “

Hopefully these methods helped you brainstorm your plot a little better! Tune in next week for another TeenWritr segment! 🙂