#126: The Five Key Ingredients of Plot

Hi, Story Nurse!

I’ve created a great cast of characters that I have fleshed out and given a great amount of detail and attention to. While I haven’t fleshed it out completely, I’ve also come up with a world and different species and cultures in it.

The problem is, I don’t have a plot. I know how these characters meet each other and their backstories, but I can’t figure out a plot. I know that conflict is what makes a story. My characters all have different internal conflicts, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what external conflict there should be. I originally started with the idea of a war, but I don’t know where to go with that or if it fully fits, and I can’t figure out what role my cast would even play in that.

For reference, my story is a fantasy and many of the characters start out as children, but they age as the story progresses. Any help would be appreciated! I’m desperate to give my characters a story they deserve, but I’m thoroughly stumped. Thank you!

—Hummingbird (she/her)

Dear Hummingbird,

Thank you so much for writing in and allowing me to correct a very common misconception! “Plot revolves around conflict” gets tossed around a lot, and it does at least as much harm as good; you’re not the first writer who’s been discouraged by it. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do plot—and lots of things that can be meant by conflict.

Your idea of creating a war as a source of conflict points to the most frequent misunderstanding of this “conflict creates plot” notion: that the conflict must be a literal battle in which someone is forcefully opposed by someone else. Please lay that idea to rest. I’m sure that you can easily think of any number of books in which there are no raised-voice arguments, let alone wars. Also, as you have discovered, wars don’t come out of nowhere! You can’t manufacture conflict and apply it to characters. Conflict comes from characters, and their encounters with one another.

What you need for plot is:

  1. at least one well-rounded character
  2. who moves in a direction
  3. at variable speeds
  4. and has some feelings about it
  5. that change over time

That’s not all there is to plotting, but these are the essential elements without which a plot cannot function.

What conflict drives is excitement. It’s an easy source of the feelings in point four. But without a strong character, a strong direction for that character, motivation and obstacles, and a sense of development and evolution, the conflict will lack real stakes and the feelings will fall flat.

You’ve got characters and a setting. That’s great! But it’s very static. You need movement to bring it to life. There are elements of every setting that are already in motion before the story starts, so begin by determining those.

  • What’s the environment doing? Climates and weather patterns and ecosystems change even without human intervention; where has a volcano erupted, or a cold snap killed crops and other plants?
  • What’s happening in technological development? How are innovations influencing culture, industry, etc.?
  • What’s happening in health and medicine? What do people get sick from, and die from? What different kinds of medical care are available, and who has access to them?
  • How do the different species and cultures relate to one another? How do nations or the equivalent relate to one another?
  • How is the local culture changing? What’s driving that change?
  • Who has power, resources, fame, or other status markers, and who lacks them? How are those things being distributed and consolidated?

These questions will help you think of your world as a world that’s moving and changing in ways that have nothing to do with your characters—though those characters will certainly be influenced by the movement and changes in their world. In turn, that will help you think of your characters as moving and changing, and as having come from somewhere as well as going to somewhere.

Now, keeping all that in mind, think about:

  • What do your characters want or need that they don’t have? Don’t limit yourself to one want or need per person; we’re all more complex than that.
  • Will they get what they want or need by the end of the story? If they do, what will it cost them?
  • What might motivate each character to pursue the thing they need? What might hold them back or get in their way?
  • How will they feel about those motivations and obstacles, and about their progress or lack of it?
  • What new information, experiences, and ideas might affect their feelings or even shift their goals over the course of the story? How will changes in the world around them affect them?

Let’s consider a story about a person who has a new shirt that doesn’t fit. This is not a plot:

  1. I got a new shirt that didn’t fit.
  2. I took it back to the store.
  3. I couldn’t find my receipt, and the clerk at the returns counter got mad at me for wasting their time and said they couldn’t accept the return. Then I found the receipt, so they let me return the shirt.
  4. I got another shirt that fit fine.
  5. I went home.

It’s got conflict, but no emotion, and the conflict doesn’t slow down or speed up the person’s progress at all. And the person is barely a person—they’re not characterized in any significant way.

This is a plot:

  1. I got a new shirt. It was too wide in some places and too tight in others. I hated how it made me look, and it felt very uncomfortable.
  2. I decided to return the shirt to the store and get one that would fit me well and make me look good.
  3. But it took me a week to get around to it because I kept putting it off and putting it off. Something else always seemed more important.
  4. Finally I realized I was delaying because I was ashamed of my body. I thought the shirt not fitting me was my fault somehow, and I worried that the store clerks would make fun of me for not fitting into their clothes. But I was certain that I could find something else that fit, and tired of feeling bad. I decided I wasn’t going to let my shame and worry stop me anymore.
  5. Returning the shirt was easy, and the clerk helped me find one that suited me perfectly. I felt great about my body when I put on my flattering new shirt, and proud that I’d pushed through those hard feelings to take care of myself.

The direct external conflict is gone, which is fine; it wasn’t needed in the first place. Instead there’s characterization, direction, motivation, obstacles, emotion, and development. The story also feels much more rooted in the setting, a culture where people are inclined to blame themselves and beat themselves up for perceived imperfections (expressed almost entirely through the character’s emotions). It’s not the world’s most exciting story, but it gets the job done.

Plotting a novel will require a little more effort, of course, but much of it will come from the different things your characters want and need, and the ways those goals drive their interactions. Those needs can be very big (an asteroid is about to destroy the Earth and they need to stop it) or very small (they need that extremely annoying other person in the party to stop talking for just five seconds). They might not even know they need the thing they need (as with many romance novel protagonists who start out insisting that they’re happy being single). But you know. Really dig into the characters and find the empty spaces and points of discomfort in their lives.

I strongly recommend outlining your plot with BUT and THEREFORE story beats, as laid out in my post on maintaining story momentum. That will help you keep things moving.

Once you start writing, if you find that your characters keep returning to a static mode where they stand around feeling unmotivated, that’s a sneaky form of writer’s block and is usually about not wanting bad things to happen to the characters you love so much. To write a rich story about real people, you’re going to have to accept the need to put them through a certain degree of pain. Even my 200-word “story” about a person with an ill-fitting shirt has a hefty dose of emotional angst. Without that depth of feeling, story can’t happen. Remember all the stories you’ve read where agony and woe were part of what kept you enthralled by the plot and connected to the characters, go back and fix the point where the character turned away from their goals rather than accepting the risks of pursuing them, and console yourself by plotting a happy ending.

You can do this! Just keep those characters pushing forward, and all the conflict you need will arise from the world being imperfect and people being flawed and resources being finite. Who knows—maybe they’ll even end up starting a war. Wind them up and see what happens.

Happy plotting!


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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