Kickstarting Your Plot
I've seen a lot more manuscripts that start with action coming too early, making no
sense, than books that meander along without a plot for a hundred pages. Both are
certainly problems in a book, but I'm going to talk about the former problem here.
If you start a book with the major plot problem, the worst villain in the piece, the
insoluble problem, and the dark night of the soul, you've nowhere to go. The book
will end in a few chapters and you'll have a short story instead of a novel. So what
do you do? The key is to start with a problem, but not the epic problem of the rest
of the book. A small problem, so you have time to introduce the protagonist, the
world, the magic, and the stakes. So your readers will care when all hells breaks
loose halfway through the book.
You need a protagonist with a problem. Why? Don't you want a protagonist who
is nearly perfect in every way, strong enough to deal with the massive problems
coming, and courageous enough to face them head on? Well, simply put-no. If you
have a character who doesn't need to change, then what is the point of writing the
book? Why should anyone read it? Readers read in part because they want to see
how to go through big life changes of their own. Reading is less about escape than
it is about learning a lesson in a way that makes sense and can be applied to real
So start with a character who has problems. Maybe start with a small problem that
the protagonist is aware of. We're all of us blind to our own problems, right? So
the bigger problems will become apparent as you skillfully show the protagonist
dealing with a smaller problem. It can be a family problem or a village problem, a
problem at the magic school or a problem in the space station. Readers then get to
see the protagonist in action.
Sure, you want your protagonist to have some good qualities, just not too many.
You need the protagonist to be competent enough to deal with this small problem.
It can't just be solved by luck or by someone else. But you can have the solution
not be entirely certain because of the stuff that will shortly be coming down the
pipeline that you will be hinting at because you're the all-knowing writer and you
know what foreshadowing is good for. It's good for making the readers pay
attention to the details and to being tense even when there's no reason for them to
be tense. It's good for making sure that they realize there are bigger things at stake
than appear in this small problem.
In some ways, I like to think of this kind of a beginning as a novella. You could
potentially sell it by itself to a magazine because you're introducing the
protagonist and the world and you're going to solve a small problem. You do
world-building, but you do it lite, because there will be more to drop in as the
story goes along and it's necessary. This piece can stand alone, but it leads to the
rest of the story and it grabs the reader because it has just enough plot in it to keep
them turning pages.
Sometimes this little novella is a romp, all fun and games with lots of sly humor. A
heist of some kind or a minor scuffle that shows hilariously the friendship between
the protagonist and the main side kick. It doesn't have to be humorous, though. It
can also be deadly serious, but turn out not to be as important as it first seemed. Or
it can turn into a massive mistake that drags the protagonist along on an adventure
they never would have headed off for on their own.
When I write, I often have this novella plotted out in my head, though I don't
necessarily know what the rest of the novel is going to be about. I like to let the
story and the protagonist lead me into the bigger problems that inevitably come,
because life is all about big problems as soon as you are smart enough to notice
them. And as your protagonist lives a little, hopefully they will see more problems
around them, maybe problems that don't seem to have anything to do with them
personally, but the more they see, the less they find they can turn away from them.
Writers who have trouble with plot can often find a way into it by using this
method. You stir up a little bit of trouble and then more trouble rains down
naturally. Or you create a protagonist who is the kind of person who can't sit still
and let the world happen to them, and so goes haring off toward adventure. Then
you as the writer just sit and take notes rather than dictating to the character what
will happen. Even characters who might seem like they're not the type may find
out that life leads them in a direction they don't expect. Your job as a writer is to
make sure that it makes sense.
In my experience, life is less about throwing myself off a cliff and seeing what
happens and a lot more about peering off the cliff day after day and then finally
realizing that there's a way down if I get the right equipment and do the right
exercises and practice my heart out. Life has dealt me a lot of things I didn't
expect and didn't plan on, but looking back, I'm pretty sure that everyone around
me would nod and say that if I didn't see it coming, they did. We usually have the
lives that we are ready for, that we are making ourselves to match, even if we
don't know it.
Your characters have a list of problems and weaknesses and a list of skills and
strengths and your job is to make a story about how they figure out a way to make
each one of them come out in a test of one kind or another. The tests need to be all
different kinds. Try brainstorming what might work if you're an outliner or if
you're stuck. And then think about what would be the worst possible thing for the
protagonist and try to figure out how they would deal with that. Because we all
have worst possible things happen to us. We want the characters in our fiction to
show us the way through that, since there's no way out for us, either.
Writers say frequently that a character needs a goal, and that's true. But at the
beginning of the book, it's always the wrong goal. And halfway through the book,
it may still be the wrong goal. It's OK to let your character change their mind, and
change their mind again. We all do it, right? It's a very human thing, to not
understand ourselves, and to realize once we have the thing we thought we wanted
that it isn't what we wanted anymore, and has only shown us how foolish and
immature we were when we thought we wanted that. So we figure out a new goal
that's more mature -- at least for a little while. And then we fail and fail again
until we realize that it's less the world that needs to change and more us that needs
Another way to put it is that plot is two steps forward and three steps back. It's
using a sword tentatively at the villain first, and thinking you're winning, and then
realizing you're not, that you've fallen into a trap and in ten seconds, you're going
to die. It's accepting that and embracing the trap. Or pulling one of your own. Or
throwing yourself into the trap early just to see if that will throw the villain off.
It's less about making progress forward and more about making mistakes and
realizing who you are. It's about dancing on the edge of the cliff and then
skydiving off it in the most beautiful way possible, embracing the end that's
What I'm saying is stop being afraid of writing a plot that takes you and your
protagonist to unexpected places. Don't be afraid that your protagonist is running
around in circles and not getting anywhere close to an ending for most of the
book. Let it be messy and unpleasant as hell. Let your protagonist whine a little (or
a lot). It's not a straight shot from the beginning to end with clear steps along the
way. It's not like getting a degree in college, though I've certainly had moments
when I wished that it was (and that my life was like that, too). Write a plot that
goes backward and makes your readers wonder if you can really pull it off. Find an
ending hiding in the beginning.
And most of all, trust your characters to show you the way. Let them tell you who
they are and why they are so confused and useless. Your characters are the ones
who should be making the plot, not you pushing it on them. Your protagonist
needs to make things happen at some point, but first needs to make a big mess so
that there's no turning back. There needs to be a reason to make things happen,
and there needs to be a reason that your protagonist feels compelled to act. So
work on that first, before you have a battle scene or the asteroid that's barreling
toward the earth.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison