Your Mission: Creating Compelling Plots
Sheesh! Give me a more difficult question, please! I’ve been writing novels for over 30 years, and I can tell you how to be a soccer referee or fly an ILS approach to minimums, but explaining and taking apart plot requires some thought.
But as all of us authors should do, I’m not going to tell you how to create compelling plots—I’m going to show you, using my first novel, Flight of the Old Dog, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Here goes:
“An unlikely crew of engineers, veteran pilots, and young airmen launch a high-tech B-52 bomber on an unexpected solo mission to fight through thick air defenses and attempt to destroy a Soviet laser site.”
Is that the novel’s plot? How about this:
“Patrick and Dave are selected to be part of a top-secret mission to test-fly a highly modified B-52 Stratofortress bomber nicknamed “Old Dog.” They are sent to a secret base in the Nevada desert known as Dreamland and meet Gen. Brad Elliott, a crusty old veteran B-52 pilot, and the rest of the flight crew, which is composed mostly of engineers who have no flying experience.
“Meanwhile, tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union ratchet up over a powerful Russian ground-based laser in Siberia that the U.S. accuses the Russians of destroying U.S. satellites. The incident is getting heated almost to the brink of nuclear war.
“The U.S. has discovered the Soviets’ secret laser base…but the Russians have discovered Dreamland and the Old Dog, and they send a commando team to destroy it. Patrick and his crew manage to launch the Old Dog just before the commandos strike…”
You need to read the book to find out what happens next! 😉
So which is the plot?
I think most would say that the first is the story and the second is the plot. The story (also called the “elevator pitch,” the “TV Guide description,” or the “logline”) is the big-picture view. The plot tells how you get from point A to point B, C, D, all the way to the end.
Obviously the plot is longer and much more detailed. But there are specific elements that make it different and essential to the story.
To me, plot is simply a collection of conflicts that all need to resolved by the end of the story. Each element of the plot has its own conflicts. So what elements do we have in the plot outline above? Let’s pick out three:
First, we have characters. The crew of the Old Dog is the nucleus of the characters in the story. But just because they’re a crew doesn’t mean there aren’t conflicts. We see a few right away: old versus young, experienced versus no experience, fliers versus non-fliers. There are other characters, too, of course: the White House, the Pentagon, the Kremlin, the Russian generals. They all have conflicts that need to be resolved, and their conflict and the resolution must logically affect the main characters.
Second, we have situations. Test-flying the Old Dog is one; the Russians firing their laser is another; the tension between the U.S. and Russia is yet another. You can create many different situations, but they all must affect the main characters and must be resolved by the end of the story. Each situation builds upon the previous one in a stair-step fashion until you come to the climax and the final battle.
Third, you must have change, also called “arcs.” I write military techno-thrillers with good guys (usually the Americans) and the bad guys, and my readers expect the good guys to win. That rarely changes. However, you can show change in every other element of the plot.
Character arcs are probably the most important, most interesting, and most challenging. Each character, especially the main characters, should have an arc. For example, I show Patrick at first to be a young, highly effective bombardier, very quiet and unassuming, but with no leadership skills However, throughout the mission we see that in fact he does show real leadership material. The U.S. president desperately wants peace but is eventually forced to order the Old Dog strike even though it might result in World War Three.
A sudden change, or arc, is called a “twist.” They are fun to have in your story and create a surprising and satisfying moment for your readers, but they need to be logical. Your twist needs to evoke an “A-ha!” moment, not a “Wha…?” It takes a lot of work to make it happen, but always look for opportunities to add a twist to your plot elements.
The foundation of my stories usually follows the “quest” template, and many times these templates can help you devise and organize your plot.
For example, we meet Patrick in the “real” world, where he has some skills but little else. In the real world a storm is brewing, led by the evil mastermind, and Patrick would like to help, but he doesn’t know how.
Along comes a mentor (General Elliott) to take Patrick into the “unreal” world, and together with their opponents and allies, they descend deeper and deeper into the unreal world. They encounter the mastermind’s minions along the way in a series of situations that build upon one another until finally they meet the mastermind, and the final battle takes place.
In the final battle, the hero is “killed” but is reborn with all of his new powers that he has encountered in his quest. He then rises through the unreal world back to the real world, where he has been transformed.
Look for the quest template in many types of stories and movies, all the way back to Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to The Matrix.
Even more confused now? Don’t be. Just keep these things in mind as you write, and look for opportunities to use a few of these ideas. You might find a new spark in your work.
Get back to work, have fun, and Write On! Dale…