Many novels begin with a mysterious, shocking, or otherwise gripping opening. The trick, as a writer, is delivering on your promise.
Your characters have crossed into the heart of the story with a door slamming behind them, rendering any thoughts about turning back moot. The middle world is the great unknown, a dark foreboding channel that requires your protagonist to summon his courage, learn new things, make new allies, etc. The main action of the story takes place here, constituting a whopping one half of the project. The stakes of the characters’ emotional development plot line and the dramatic action plot line steadily rise.
How do you sustain the tension? Ask yourself—and keep asking—what’s the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist? How can I make it harder for him to achieve his goal? Consider the character’s fears. What is the worst turn of events or information he can receive? A universe of possibilities can invade the present, including secrets from his past. Make each successive problem, opponent, weakness, fear, or setback greater than those that preceded it.
It’s time to call in the antagonists. Family, friends, co-workers, lovers, and enemies are ripe with havoc wreaking potential, intuitively knowing the precise sort of folly certain to thwart the protagonist’s progress. A hurricane, earthquake, or physical disability might ruin everything. Perhaps the rules of religion, government, and customs throw up detours. A car breaks down. A motorcycle skids. Fears and flaws and prejudice get in the way. Through it all, the most formidable antagonist ticks on—time—as one tension, conflict, or suspenseful scene after another unfurls with mounting significance.
- What adversaries arise?
- What havoc do they wreak?
- What are the character’s goals in each and every scene?
Short-term goals are specific tasks, objectives, or actions your protagonist decides he needs to accomplish within a certain period to achieve his goal. If the long-term goal helps define the dramatic action plot, these short-term goals help define the character’s emotional development plot. Each time the protagonist reacts to his short-term successes or failures, it deepens the reader understanding of who he is.
Every scene should have a goal, and every goal should have antagonists, both internal and external. Through the chain of dilemmas, the reader is made to care for the protagonist and what is at stake.
For you, the writer, clearly articulated goals, both long and short-term, help keep your story grounded and your choices deliberate. In that way, the plot remains defined throughout the story.