If you think about plotting your story as meticulously as you would plan your vacation, the whole thing falls into place, with a few surprises along the way.
Plotting your story simply means presenting a problem to a select few characters and let your hero or heroine solve it and save the day. With that in mind, you should have a fairly good idea what the problem is and how you want your characters to end up solving it. We call this conflict and resolution.
Your story should include a variety of scenes. Have you ever seen a movie where the characters never move about? Changing scenes carry your readers through the story, letting them feel they are an integral part of it, and offers a side bit of information they didn’t know before.
Thus, the trip.
Take your readers from scene one throughout the storyline until you get to the last scene.
And, yes, it’s like planning a vacation—sort of.
Plotting Your Story in Three Acts
Let’s say you want to take the kids to Disneyland. You know where you start—your own home. You know where you are going—Disneyland. What you don’t know is what’s happening in between. Will you have a flat tire? When you check the spare, will it also be flat? Will you leave mom and the kids in the middle of the desert while you walk ten miles to the only garage available, and when you get there all tired and sweaty will you discover their air pump is broken?
This is the fun part of writing a story. Problems like these help create the adventure. Many writers take this approach of new discoveries popping up along the way. That is what they mean when they say, “Let your characters tell the story.” The more you allow your characters to do freely, the more lifelike and more memorable they become.
Of course, there must be some structure to the story that is not accidental, but don’t force too much rigidity into the characters. You need a basic outline to set the pace. The tried and true Three-Act Play is a recommended format for plotting your story.
Act I (the beginning)
Introduces characters, setting, situation goal; complications and conflict begin. Suppose the family wants to go to Disneyland, but poppa doesn’t. That’s conflict. You start there and overcome poppa’s objections. Given his state of mind, his reluctance, that intensifies all these little problems I mentioned. The flat tire angers him, the flat spare makes him furious, and the broken air pump may cause him to take out his anger on the station manager.
Act II (the middle)
More detail as characters and story are developed; complications and conflicts escalate, and the act ends with the crisis. Somewhere in all of poppa’s blustering and flustering, he loses all their tickets to the theme park. He wants to turn around and go home, but cooler heads prevail. They look for the tickets.
Act III (the end)
The crisis reaches its highest point (do or die) and is resolved and characters reflect on the resolution. The tickets are found at the gas station where poppa dropped them. But, they are found by a poor family who has a dying child whose lifelong dream is to meet Micky Mouse before he dies. Okay, another one of those little surprises along the journey. Does poppa angrily demand the tickets, or does he feel sorry for the family and lets them go to Disneyland, maybe they all go together. Maybe, just maybe, the service station manager confronts poppa and says he understands the frustration of having a flat tire and no air hose working so, as a consolation, he provides a new tire and … free tickets to Disneyland for the entire family. Everybody goes to Disneyland.
Now you’ve learned something about writing is a trip. When these little scenes pop up, don’t try to stick to a rigid format, be willing to adapt. What has this taught us? It’s time to scrap your original story and start over.
Your story began with a family wanting to go on vacation, but poppa didn’t want to go. That is a weak story. Rewrite your main characters using the other family. Juan and Maria Gonzales are trying to get to Disneyland in their rusted out, broken down pickup so little Jorge can see Mickey Mouse before he dies. That is a much more compelling family drama than just a botched vacation story.
They limp into the gas station with a flat tire and a busted water hose. There’s only one tire left, and poppa has already bought it and now the Gonzales family can’t go. But, because poppa is the 1,000th customer, the station attendant gives him a family pass to Disneyland.
The story ends with them taking the Gonzales family along and giving them the free pass.
It’s what you discover along the way and the willingness to let your characters come alive, that makes for a better story.