5 secrets to planning a killer plot - premise, flaw, mythology, choice, consequences

There’s nothing quite so gutting about wasting weeks, months and even years writing your novel only to find out that it has major plot issues.

Below are the five elements I’ve found most critical when it comes to creating a stonking plot that gives your readers the excitement and satisfaction they crave.

Start with a good premise

Premise, logline, backbone, kernel, elevator pitch… Whatever you want to call it, this is a single line which sums up the absolute core question and thrust of your novel. It should include five elements: character, situation, objective, opponent and disaster.

It should set out who the protagonist is, what they want, what’s stopping them and what disaster they need to avoid. It also helps to offer some sense of setting.

This premise is your anchor, to ensure your novel is coherent and starts on a solid footing.

Define your character’s flaw

The most popular stories follow a flawed character who redeems themselves.

They should be able to take the right action in the final scene that they would not have been capable of in the first scene. Allen Palmer of Cracking Yarns suggests that the two character flaws that offer the most reader satisfaction when overcome, are a lack of courage and a lack of compassion. I’m not saying you have to use one of those, I’m just mentioning it.

By the way, if you haven’t read Allen Palmer’s entire website, you should. http://www.crackingyarns.com.au/

Follow the timeless mythology stages

It has been shown fairly comprehensively that the vast majority of popular stories follow some or all of a series of stages. You certainly don’t have to follow these steps to the letter, but if you’re struggling to understand why your plot isn’t working, it may be worth seeing if adding in some of these stages might help:

  • · Meet the protagonist in their natural state (don’t forget to demonstrate their flaw!)
  • · The protagonist’s world is disrupted by a threat or opportunity
  • · The protagonist expresses reluctance to respond to the threat or opportunity (or some other character voices the dangers)
  • · The protagonist takes decisive action with regard to the threat or opportunity (preferably burning some bridges so they can’t turn back)
  • · The protagonist is tested, either physically, emotionally or mentally
  • · The protagonist learns from others – though the others don’t necessarily need to be intentionally helpful or positive
  • · The protagonist should hit rock bottom, where they suffer terrible setbacks and lose something they hold dear
  • · The protagonist bounces back with renewed vigour to face the final conflict
  • · The protagonist returns home triumphant

Give your protagonist an impossible choice

It’s no good to just have a sword or word fight at the end of the novel and the strongest / smartest one wins, even if the protagonist was a weakling / shy guy to begin with.

If you really want to have the audience on the edge of their seats, you need to offer them a nail biting moment where the protagonist is offered a choice that will define their character and prove that they have grown as a person.

The choice should have these two sides:

a) They get what they ‘want’ (the boy, the job, the treasure) but other people, probably those they love will be forced to suffer
b) They can help the other people (again probably those they love), but they will lose what it is they want and probably much more

Because this is fiction and not real life, how they act will result in righteous consequences…

Don’t give your protagonist what they wanted – give them what they needed

If your protagonist chooses to do the ‘right’ thing, in other words they abandon their personal selfish desires in order to serve the greater good, then something else must happen which swings the situation in their favour and results in them getting something else which is much better than what they thought they wanted – and is actually what they need.

For example, a boy might really fancy the top cheerleader, but at the end of the story he makes a good moral choice and instead ends up with the geeky girl, who is his true soulmate and brings him much greater happiness.

Or, an archaeologist might be chasing a special artefact, but after her moral decision to give it to its rightful owners instead of having it to study herself, she is inducted into the secretive tribe to study their lives.

Of course, your protagonist doesn’t have to make the moral choice – thought of course that’s what happens 99% of the time. If you want them to make the ‘wrong’ choice, that’s fine, but then you must follow through the consequences.

As soon as they have their prize in their greedy little hands it should turn to dust, and their selfish behaviour means they are all alone.

So, on that cheerful note – what are your top secrets that help you ensure your plot holds all the keys?


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