That said, a good plot must accomplish certain things if it's to be satisfying to the reader. Thus, it is possible to outline a road map for a good plot, even though it's impossible to wrap a fence around all plot possibilities.
In this post, I'm going to talk about my understanding of what the road map is, but there are a thousand other ways to think about and describe it. This is just my opinion.
1) A satisfying plot is about change.
Your protagonist starts in one state. By the end of the book, they should exist in a different state. This can mean a changed world, a different mental state, or some combination of the two.
2) Every scene must contain a turning point.
First, the definition: a turning point is a moment of irreversible change.
For example, if Paula and Mike fight and break up, kiss and make up, and then repeat that cycle, it's not a plot. It's only a series of events. Both characters are experiencing change, but it's reversible change. Nothing stops them from going back to their initial state.
If Paula and Mike fight, and Paula blurts out, "I'm seeing someone else anyway,"--a revelation that hurts Mike deeply--that's an irreversible change. The couple might still find their way to a happy ending, but their relationship will never be the same. It is impossible for them to get back to their initial state.
Every turning point is a point of no return, although some of them are smaller in scale than others.
A variety of story events can act as a turning point. These can include (but are not limited to):
- A decision (Harry Potter decides to enter the Chamber of Secrets)
- An action (Julia passes Winston Smith a note that says, 'I love you.')
- A discovery (Soylent Green is made from human corpses)
- A revelation ("Luke, I am your father.")
I would argue turning points fall into two main categories:
Self-directed Turning Points
These are turning points the character creates, usually by acting or making a decision.
In the wake of a setback, your character must decide what to do, and their decision and/or action constitutes the story's next turning point.
Surprise Turning Points
These are turning points inflicted on a character by outside forces. They're often due to reality not matching up with the character's expectations.
Most of your character's setbacks will be Surprise Turning Points. Note that your protagonist's Surprise Turning Point is often also your antagonist's Self-directed Turning Point, i.e. the villain acts, and the hero is surprised (in a bad way.)
3) The story's inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist's life first swings out of balance.
The story truly starts at the moment when the protagonist feels compelled to try to fix a problem. The problem is usually their own, but it can be someone else's if the protagonist is a person committed to helping others.
The protagonist's goal, initially, is usually to bring their (or the victim's) life back into balance. As the story progresses, the goal can become larger, more complex, or alter completely, but at the beginning, the character simply resists change and tries to get things back to normal.
4) A character acts (creates a Self-directed Turning Point) in hope of achieving their goal.
Within your character's mind, their decision/action makes perfect sense as a way to get to their goal. Your character may be honestly deluded, or may be in for a nasty shock, but Self-directed Turning Points need seem logical to the character creating them.
5) A story consists of a series of turning points that move your character irreversibly from their initial state to their final state.
Your scenes will seem like random events unless they progressively step the character toward a different state of being.
Even in stories whose plots are externally driven, your characters must undergo personal growth. Here's why:
When your character suffers a setback, they must make a decision or take an action (i.e. they must create a Self-directed Turning Point.)
These decisions should increase in magnitude, risk and cost. This is because stories are about change, and every time your character gets smacked with another irreversible turning point, that experience changes their world and hence the character themself.
And they learn from it. A story with no personal growth arc doesn't feel believable, because if the character already had all the skills they needed to succeed, why did it take them 300 pages to do it?
Your character may become braver, or more cruel, or absorb the lesson taught by their last bitter experience, but they must incrementally become a slightly different person. Every scene--every turning point--forces them into it.
How many scenes should a story contain? As many as it takes to move your character from their initial state to their final state. This involves both completing their personal growth arc and changing their world in order to bring back balance.
6) The most satisfying Surprise Turning Points are the ones the reader doesn't see coming either.
Surprise Turning Points shock your character. If they shock the reader too, you've created a worthy and memorable plot.
Note: You can end your story with either a successful Self-directed Turning Point or a fortunate Surprise Turning Point. The latter case is the trickiest, as you must be careful not to create a deus ex machina ending, but it also holds the most potential in regard to point (6), above.
When ending on a successful Self-directed Turning Point, your character acts--and they finally put enough personal grit into their action to achieve success.
When ending on a fortunate Surprise Turning Point, however, your character acts with the expectation of pain, loss or failure, but for once, events conspire to surprise them with success.
To avoid the deus ex machina ending, you need to adequately foreshadow that those surprise events could logically happen.
However, to make this type of ending effective, the events must surprise the reader as much as they surprise the character--you need to adequately foreshadow the shocking turn of events, but you also want your reader to realize that the signposts were there only in hindsight.
This post is already wicked-long, so I may as well append an example of how to create a plot using this road map. I'm pretty much pulling this out of
All the Surprise Turning Points (setbacks) in this example consist of reality turning out to not be what the protagonist expected it to be.
I'll use the following abbreviations:Self-TP 1) Bob is happy. He plans to ask his girlfriend Wanda to marry him. He expects her to say yes.
Self-TP = Self-directed Turning Point
Surprise-TP = Surprise Turning Point
Surprise-TP 1) Wanda doesn't say yes, because...
- Why doesn't she? The best answer is the one the reader doesn't expect either, so avoid the obvious answers like lack of love or the presence of a rival.
...she has decided to go to Africa for a year to build water wells. (Note: This is the story's inciting incident; Bob's life has just swung out of balance.)
Self-TP 2) Bob has a goal: he wants to keep Wanda. He decides to dig within himself for the courage to tell her how much he loves her and wants her to stay. He expects her to change her mind.
Surprise-TP 2) Wanda doesn't change her mind because she gets angry. She says this is why she needs to leave; she doesn't want to live a complacent life where she is concerned only with her own happiness, and she knows living with Bob would lull her into it. To fulfil her own goals, Wanda breaks up with Bob entirely. (Note: Bob's Surprise Turning Point is Wanda's Self-directed Turning Point.)
Self-TP 3) Bob sacrifices his current life to go to Africa and convince Wanda he can live generously also. Note his commitment is still essentially selfish. His expectation is Wanda will take him back.
Surprise-TP 3) When he arrives, Bob discovers he's been sent to a different village than the one Wanda went to. He doesn't know where Wanda is at all.
This progression of Expectation/Surprise continues until Bob completes his personal growth arc. As each Surprise Turning Point clobbers him, he is forced to dig deeper within himself to overcome his obstacles, but the act of digging changes both his character and the nature of his goal, until...
Self-TP Last) Faced with either meeting up with Wanda again or helping the villagers he has come to care for save their livestock from a sudden flood, Bob chooses to stay and help. He expects to lose Wanda forever.
Surprise-TP Last) Wanda hears of sudden flood in a neighbouring village and blows off her meeting with Bob to go help. When she discovers Bob did the same thing, she realizes he is now the kind of man she wants to be with.
At this point, the couple can have their happy ending, but note they have not ended in the same state they started in. They may be together again, but they have both changed, and the life they'll build with each another will be very different than the one they would have had if Wanda had accepted Bob's original marriage proposal.
And this works, because stories aren't about events working out neatly; they're about meaningful change.