Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.
The basis of most plots is
1) Somebody wants something
2) They have obstacles
There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.
In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.
But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.
Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.
This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.
The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.
In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.
To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.
Because, you know, choices.
Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.