Now that you have a handle on who your characters are and what they want out of life, it’s time to make them do something!
Everything that happens in your novel is part of the plot. It doesn’t matter which type of novel you’re writing, it needs a plot because something needs to happen to your characters. (No one wants to read about the couple who binge watches TV every night.) Even if you’re a seat-of-your-pants writer, you still need to understand what makes a strong plot so you can include these elements in your story.
There are different ways to structure a plot (the most popular being 3- and 4-act plots), but here we’re going to look at the 3-act structure. The 3-act plot structure includes three easy-to-remember sections:
- The Beginning
- The Middle
- The End
Each of these sections serves a specific purpose, and you’ll want to make sure your story includes the necessary elements to fulfil that purpose.
Also called the introduction, and for good reason – this is where you’ll introduce your main characters and the main conflict. The length and speed of the beginning and those introductions will depend on your genre.
For instance, if you’re writing category romance, you’ll want to introduce the hero and heroine in the first chapter. You might even introduce their central conflict at that time. If you’re writing speculative fiction or historical, however, you’ll need some time world build – you’ll need to set the scene as well as introduce historical and made-up elements that your reader might not understand.
There’s no set length for your beginning – it needs to be as long as it needs to be. Just make sure it includes this information:
- Main characters’ primary goals
- Main characters’ primary conflicts
This is the bulk of your story. This is where you’ll introduce the main characters’ primary motivations, additional GMCs, minor characters, and subplots. Again, there’s no absolute number when it comes to how long the middle should be, but 50 percent is a good number to keep in mind.
The middle of your book is where you want to make things worse. Just when it looks like your character might resolve her conflict, throw a wrench into things. Then toss in a screwdriver, some pliers, and a hammer. These conflicts create tension, which prevents saggy middle syndrome (when the story begins to lull and drag on).
There are no rules about what kind of conflicts you have to include, but you must include external and internal conflict if you’re writing a full-length novel. Some people might argue that external conflicts aren’t necessary, but I’m going to hold my ground. Here’s why:
Suppose you’re writing a romance novel. Part of story’s conflict will be the hero’s and heroine’s reasons for not wanting to come together – those are their initial internal conflicts. That works for a few chapters as they try to decide whether or not the relationship is worth the effort but eventually they need to do something. If not, the characters come across as unreliable or unstable – wanting a relationship in one chapter, then changing their minds. Instead, give them some external conflict.
Look at Pride and Prejudice. The initial internal conflict is Elizabeth’s dislike of Mr. Darcy – she’s just not interested. Then he causes more conflict (external) by insulting her and unintentionally hurting her sister. After he explains himself, Elizabeth’s original conflict weakens because she realizes he has some redeeming qualities. At that point they could very easily come together and begin their relationship, but Austen throws in even more external conflict. Lydia runs away and then Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth – so much conflict! And most of it is external.
The only time an internal conflict works throughout an entire novel is when your character’s main conflict is some type of internal issue. If she’s a recovering addict or struggling with anxiety, most of the conflict with happen in her own head, though it will probably be inspired by an external situation.
Your goal throughout the second act is to keep building tension to launch your readers into the final act – and biggest conflict – of your story.
You’re not ready to write those words yet, so hold on. Your ending needs to include two elements:
- The greatest (usually life-changing) conflict.
- A satisfactory ending.
In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the final battle marks the final act. In it we see Luke Skywalker face his greatest challenge – the Emperor. His life changes forever after that battle as he resists the dark side and forms the final connection with his father. The greatest conflict in your story may not be as intense as a lightsaber fight, but it should be a life-changing event that will forever change the main character(s).
Once you’ve resolved that conflict, don’t forget to include the satisfactory ending. In women’s fiction, we should see the heroine overcome the main issue she’s battled. In romance, the boy and girl need to admit their love (and, in some cases, either get engaged or married). If you’re writing a series, there should be some resolution, but also a hook to bring the reader back for the next book. Each genre has different expectations, so make sure you’re aware of what readers (and publishers) will expect, and make sure you meet those expectation.
Questions? Leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And make sure to stop back in two weeks when we’ll talk about two more plot necessities – the Point of No Return and the Breaking Point.