Although most writers have a general plot before they read this post, I recommend reading my Organizing Your General Plot and Fleshing Out a Story if you’re seriously interested in learning more (it wouldn’t hurt to read How to Fix Plot Pitfalls either).
As all writers know, the creative mind never really comes up with a story plot without characters and some pieces of the story outline. This post is just the first step to creating a story, the final step being the Author’s Plot Line. Do not skip ahead and start the plot line, subplots, or Author Plot Line. Read this first.
“Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you ‘flesh out and clothe’ your structure that makes each story unique.” – Caroline Lawrence
Easy Steps to Structure the Skeleton
Step 1: Goal.
Think of the skeleton plot as a map only authors can read, providing the directions that characters follow in the story to reach “happily ever after” or their Goal. Before a story can go anywhere the author needs to create a Goal: the problem characters must solve, an objective that must be achieved, or a destination that must be reached. Then they must establish Reasons for the Goal: what are the potential consequences that may occur if the goal isn’t achieved. This justifies the existence of the story, explaining character motivation and decisions, so don’t ignore it. It also adds tension and tone to scenes. Sometimes the decision to resolve a problem or pursue a goal happens later in the story, but always in the beginning of the main plot (Defeating Voldemort was established as the goal in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Since he did not truly die, the goal was established for the Harry Potter series.)
Elrond: “The Ring cannot be destroyed, Gimli, son of Glóin, by any craft that we here possess. The Ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade. It must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. One of you must do this.”
Boromir: “One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with fire and ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!”…………………………………………..
Gandalf: “Do you not understand that while we bicker amongst ourselves, Sauron’s power grows?! None can escape it! You’ll all be destroyed!”
Frodo: “I will take it! I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor. Though — I do not know the way.”
See how Tolkien explained the goal and consequences of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s quickly followed by the story’s Requirements.
Step 2: Requirements
Requirements are a description or list of the steps necessary to fulfill the goal. These steps advance in depth with the character’s progression to the goal, and reveal emotional twists for the character. Structuring requirements well results in a page-turner book. Remember not to start designing characters yet, while making the skeleton you’ll only design situations a character may grow from enduring. Requirements also builds momentum for the story’s pace.
Step 3: Costs
Costs will be scattered through out the story, and may be mistaken for consequences or Requirements, so be alert. Cost determines value of the story; if the Cost to achieve the Goal is low, why the Goal so special? What helps keep the protagonist motivated to achieve the Goal? Costs can motivate readers to continue, if they feel a protagonist has sacrificed enough that they deserve to achieve their goal. The steeper the cost invokes more sympathy of the reader, which can make balancing costs and realism difficult.
Battles are the common scenes of Costs. Loss motivates the character to continue, desiring to end the war or vengeance. In heroic tales the knight or king suffers an injury (such as the loss of limb) or the loss of a cherished friend to the enemy (a fellow knight, family member, or even faithful stead).
The protagonist may not have to lose something besides health, dignity, or pride to invoke a Cost. In classic detective stories readers feel more sympathy for the hard-boiled detective after he’s been beaten up and warned off during his investigation. Of course, being beaten up just motivates the detective to jail those responsible for his injuries.
If it isn’t suffering an injury the protagonist usually must relinquish a cherished possession to reach the Goal. These cherished items can be anything the protagonist treasures or associates with themselves; which includes pride, an attitude, self-respect, money, security, an idealized memory, their home, or even the life of a friend. Occasionally Costs are a conscious sacrifice for the protagonist, other times it’s a situational loss invoked during the journey or pursuit of the Goal.
Accompanying Costs are Dividends, or the rewards characters receive during their quest to fulfill the goal. Dividends provide comfort to the protagonist after a Cost, or further character development. This explains why some characters begin as whiny brats but end as humble heroes.
Step 4: Pre-Requisites
Pre-Requisites: events that must occur for the Requirements to happen. This step embraces the progress made by the character to reach the Goal, even if they’ve only started. Again I’ll refer to the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. This gathering decides the Ring’s fate (determines the trilogy’s Goal), and the Ring-bearer Frodo is named. But Frodo is only one hobbit, so the Fellowship is formed to aid him on his quest to Mount Doom (where Frodo must destroy the Ring, thus achieving the Goal). In this example the Fellowship is the Pre-Requisite. Another example is the emergence of Gandalf the White (spoilers! sorry), in order to achieve other goals he wouldn’t have been powerful enough to do as Gandalf the Gray.
Recovering from injuries sometimes acts as scenes of Pre-Requisites, provided that the character development occurs through introspection, emotional turmoil, or inner conflict. Pre-Requisites can be meeting a companion, learning a new skill, or gaining a tool such as a wand, sword, etc.
After you’ve created your story’s Skeleton, you can move on to organizing your Plot. Be sure to read “Making Subplots: Fleshing Out the Plot.”