A plot is an interrelated series of events. Plot development is the process of constructing and fine-tuning a plot. That means all storytellers participate in plot development—even improvisers like me. (Improviser is the term I prefer over pantser or discovery writer.)
While planners tend to plot intentionally and in advance, improvisers tend to plot instinctively and in real time. Neither camp is more disciplined, gifted, or inspired. Either camp can tell meaningful, satisfying stories. Both camps can also get stuck in plot development limbo, even when following a trusted plot structure or formula.
Many creative writing resources, including most plot structures, are made by and for planners, who already value and enjoy planning ahead. Although the editor side of me values and enjoys planning ahead very much, the writer side of me does not.
How I Processed My Hatred of Plot Structures by Creating One
Navigationally speaking, I prefer lightweight compasses to heavy atlases. Plot structures that come with lots of rules, steps, and gimmicks fascinate me, but they are not very useful to me.
I cherish glance-and-go creative writing resources. I can just glance at them, let them stimulate my imagination, and then go on with my creative life. The more I coach and edit other writers, the more I notice the same preference among my clients—including some of the planners. Many writers seem to engage more deeply with simpler resources.
I designed the Plot Pattern to be a plot development “quick start guide”—simple enough to grasp quickly and flexible enough to suit any genre. It is a six-step story recipe that calls for two basic ingredients: a predicament and a protagonist.
To learn about the ideas underlying the Plot Pattern, read on. To skip to the Plot Pattern and my tips for using it, scroll to the giant “HOW TO USE THE PLOT PATTERN” heading below.
Plot Pattern Origin Story
The brilliant, bloodthirsty teen writers in the novel-publishing program I worked for needed a plot structure simple, sturdy, and self-explanatory enough to carry an entire novel. And after years of trying to practice what I preached, so did I.
Our curriculum started with character design and development. By the time we got to plot development, students had little patience left. They just wanted to write already. My colleagues and I just wanted to set them up for success.
Success meant writing a complete story of any length by our deadline six months later. The students who struggled most were not untalented or undisciplined. They were vibrant and interesting, just like their unique story concepts. And they were overwhelmed by the task of writing a story big enough to fill hundreds of pages and good enough to meet their high personal standards.
Once the plot development leg of the curriculum became my responsibility, I was also overwhelmed. How dare I—a particularly chaotic improviser who panics halfway through every NaNoWriMo—profess to know anything about plot development? How could I teach a plot development strategy beefy enough to carry an entire novel’s twists and turns—in one hour, including time for discussions and activities? And why bother, if the students were ready to revolt because I had promised them something simple and then handed them another four-page packet?
The Three-Act Structure offered too little guidance. The Hero’s Journey (which isn’t technically a plot structure) offered too little freedom. The Pixar Story Formula offered too little depth, when divorced from Pixar’s 21 other tips for telling great stories. There was simply no time to cover something as comprehensive as the Save the Cat! structure.
I traded the Hero’s Journey for its more streamlined, modernized descendant: Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. (Had I offered up E.A. Deverell’s utterly ingenious One-Page Novel structure instead, my students would have folded my self-esteem instead of folding up that paper.) Although I adored the luxurious symmetry of the Story Circle’s eight stages, which merge plot and character development magnificently, I needed something a little simpler.
My students and I needed a low-fuss, high-impact, glance-and-go plot structure. When I couldn’t find one that fit our needs, I decided to create one. All I knew for sure was that the worksheet would need to fit on one side of one page. When the pandemic wiped out funding for the program, I kept working on my plot structure anyway.
That’s how the Plot Pattern, my predicament-centered plot development framework, came to be.
In fiction as in real life, a predicament is a reliable source of dramatic tension, which is the lifeblood of storytelling.
Tension, Conflict, and Catharsis
The point of plot development is to create dramatic tension, concentrate it around a specific conflict (such as a predicament), and resolve it cathartically.
Dramatic tension, also known as suspense, comes from a narrative’s thrills and threats. It creates a swirl of excitement, uncertainty, and pressure that grabs and holds your audience’s attention. (It holds your attention too, making you more likely to start and finish writing a particular story—and enjoy doing it.)
Conflict is an excellent source of dramatic tension. Nothing concentrates tension like a conflict between two forces, urges, or ideas.
A predicament is a risky, pressing conflict one cannot easily ignore or escape. A teenager who signs up for a tournament she hasn’t trained for may have a tense road ahead of her, sure. But technically she could drop out of the tournament and be fine. A teenager who volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a government-sanctioned, nationally televised death tournament (as in The Hunger Games) has a predicament.
It’s frightfully easy to create, participate in, or escalate conflict. It’s not as easy to resolve conflict well—which is why humans crave catharsis.
Catharsis is a fancy word for emotional payoff. It comes from a powerful, meaningful release of built-up tension and leaves behind a lingering sense of awe. Catharsis is that incomparable feeling that lures you back to your favorite stories, storytellers, genres, and tropes, over and over again.
A cathartic story feels worthwhile to its target audience: worth remembering, recommending, and reexperiencing. Tight structure and pacing also make a story feel worthwhile.
Structure and Pacing
Structure refers to the order in which plot events are presented, and pacing refers to the speed at which events are presented.
A well-structured plot makes sense and means something to its intended audience thanks to sound internal logic. For example, in a well-structured plot, tension and conflict have identifiable causes and believable effects—instead of appearing or disappearing randomly, purely for dramatic effect.
A well-paced plot progresses smoothly and quickly enough to hold someone’s attention—including your own, if you’re an impatient improviser like me! To facilitate good pacing, zoom in on moments of high tension (i.e., thrilling and threatening events) and zoom past moments that lack tension.
When every element of a story contributes to the creation, expansion, or resolution of a tense central predicament, good structure and pacing come naturally. Often, that leads to a shorter, sweeter revision process!
HOW TO USE THE PLOT PATTERN
DOWNLOAD PLOT PATTERN WORKSHEET (.pdf)
Predicaments and Protagonists
Consider the story you’re currently outlining, writing, or editing. Or recall the plot of one of your favorite stories—perhaps the one that inspired you to become a writer.
Can you identify the story’s central predicament and protagonist?
You might as well get some practice. Eventually you’ll have to summarize your three-hundred-page opus in fewer than two-hundred words for a jacket blurb or query letter anyway, right? That will be much easier if you can articulate your story’s central conflict (protagonist vs. predicament) concisely.
Therefore, if you have an epic story with multiple plotlines and protagonists, try tethering them all to one central predicament (starring one MVP protagonist).
The central predicament is a specific mystery or problem that must be solved promptly. It will serve as a story’s main source of tension and the main justification for most of the story’s events. To count as a predicament, it must involve some level of danger and risk.
In fiction, central predicaments usually reflect a story’s dominant genre. We see romantic predicaments in romance, scientific predicaments in science fiction, horrific predicaments in horror, and so on. In literary fiction, we see realistic predicaments that highlight the complexity of human nature.
The central predicament is a story’s sine qua non. It fuels a story’s Inciting Incident, raises its Major Dramatic Question, and a defines a protagonist’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
The protagonist is the figure who will be (or become) most responsible for doing something about the predicament. This person will serve as the chief agent of change throughout the story—the one who shall bring about a cathartic resolution to the predicament. (Note: I will be using singular “they” to refer to the protagonist.)
Make sure the protagonist has something personally valuable to gain, lose, or learn from the predicament. Give the protagonist a meaningful motivation for taking on the predicament, even if the predicament requires the protagonist to protect, rescue, or avenge someone else. If the predicament feels personal for the protagonist, it will feel personal for your audience as well!
Once you’ve identified your predicament and protagonist, use the Plot Pattern’s six straightforward stages to craft a plot around them. Or you could just take the general idea of a central predicament and run with it! Either way, aim to craft a riveting beginning, suspenseful middle, and cathartic end.
You are welcome to interpret the following stages, guidelines, and tips creatively. Imagine the Plot Pattern stages as building blocks. Although I’ve numbered them according to the order in which they normally appear, you can arrange them however you like. The only “rule” of the Plot Pattern is to find and follow tension.
1. HOOK (orientation): an imperfect world
Use tension (thrills and threats) to introduce the protagonist’s world, values, and problems.
Start your story as close to the central predicament as you can. Provide just enough context for readers to understand why the upcoming predicament will matter. Any other information can be folded in as it becomes relevant to the predicament.
If you’re unsure where to start, try showing how the protagonist navigates a familiar (to them) thrill or threat. In this and future stages, liven up lengthy descriptions by infusing them with action and emotion.
2. DARE (provocation): a fresh challenge
Stage the event that will create or reveal the predicament, then motivate the protagonist to do something about it.
If it is not yet obvious why the protagonist would accept the Dare, now is the time to make it obvious. It’s OK if the protagonist doesn’t recognize the predicament’s danger immediately. At first, the Dare might seem like a wonderful opportunity to pursue or protect something important. But by the end of this stage, the protagonist should sense trouble ahead—and have a good reason for proceeding anyway.
3. QUEST (investigation): a perilous venture
Force the protagonist to get smarter and stronger as the predicament gets bigger and thornier.
Your protagonist’s job is to gather the resources (knowledge, clues, allies, tools, skills, etc.) for surviving, understanding, and overcoming the predicament.
Your job is to treat the protagonist the way Lucy treats Charlie Brown in Peanuts. Offer the protagonist one or more chances to end the predicament, rip victory away at the last second, and make the protagonist pay for new leads.
To avoid a “muddy middle” in long stories, make sure each Try-Fail cycle feels fresh in some way. Let the protagonist try something new, fail for a new reason, and (unlike poor Charlie Brown) learn something new from the experience.
An organic pattern of cause and effect is crucial in this stage. Make sure every twist or turn has causes (even if you won’t reveal them until later) and effects (even if they won’t appear until later). And if things don’t seem logical, let someone inside the story wonder why, even if it’s your third-person narrator.
4. SHOCK (revelation): a rude awakening
Stage the stunning event that will deepen the protagonist’s understanding of the predicament.
This eye-opening (and perhaps gut-wrenching) experience may alter the protagonist’s worldview or self-concept, or even redefine the predicament entirely.
Whether this Shock is a horrible experience or a wonderful one, demonstrate that the protagonist is properly riled up. In a longer story, the protagonist might need time to process the experience and new reasons to persevere.
Build enough tension within the protagonist to make the next stage necessary and cathartic.
5. FIGHT (confrontation): a decisive battle
During the climactic power struggle, let the protagonist make the desperate decision that will end the predicament.
All roads (and subplots) lead here. It’s time for the protagonist to have a final reckoning with the true source of the predicament.
Let the outcome of this contest—which shall determine the outcome of the entire predicament—rest on the protagonist’s shoulders. It is the protagonist’s job to “do the thing” that releases the story’s built-up tension and brings catharsis.
The protagonist’s predicament-ending choice should come across as well-earned and surprising at the same time. Let the protagonist use the lessons of earlier stages in an awe-inspiring new way, to do something they previously wouldn’t or couldn’t have.
6. PRIZE (destination): a new normal
Show how the predicament has changed the protagonist’s world, values, or problems.
Now let the Prize pay off what the Hook set up—with interest! Reunite characters with significant faces and places from earlier stages, or show them adjusting to a new state of affairs. Reveal the protagonist’s destiny (if they survived the Fight) or legacy (if they didn’t survive the Fight).
The Prize doesn’t always have to be a good thing. Have you ever heard the saying, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes”? That can apply here too! Just ask the ghost of Macbeth, Oedipus, or any other tragic hero who chose hubris over humility.
Whatever ending you choose, make sure it comes across as fair, even if it’s open-ended. Offer a Prize that honors your story’s themes, tone, and internal logic.
That’s the Plot Pattern! I hope you find it useful as an outlining tool, revision checklist, or glance-and-go resource.
DOWNLOAD PLOT PATTERN WORKSHEET (.pdf)
I use the Plot Pattern to help me determine which plot bunnies (sudden ideas for new plotlines) are worth chasing. Now, instead of following wild plot bunnies into oblivion, I herd them toward a central predicament.
I dedicate the Plot Pattern to my former students at Publishing Academy. I miss fangirling over your work and giving you pep talks on the regular, and I’m always happy to hear you’re still writing.
Readers, let me know what you think of the Plot Pattern! If you need a compassionate, thorough, pantser-friendly editor or writing coach, click here to learn more about my services and rates.
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