In review, as a general guideline:
- Beginning constitutes the first quarter of the story
- The middle makes up one half of the story.
- The end is the last quarter of the story.
LET’S BREAK IT DOWN: Another Approach to Plot
Once upon a time
Something happened to a person,
And he decided to pursue a goal.
So he devised a plan of action.
Even though there were forces trying to stop him
He moved forward
Because there was a lot at stake.
And just as things seemed as bad as they could get
He learned an important lesson.
When offered the prize
He had to decide whether or not to take it.
In making the decision,
He satisfied a need that had been create in his past.
1. THE INCITING INCIDENT
Your story begins on Thursday, not on Wednesday. Why? Because nothing happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life—you’re writing his story. And the thing that happened on Thursday—the one event that had never happened to him prior to then—upsets the equilibrium of his life, becoming the catalyst or inciting incident of his—your—story.
“The most general form of adventure is its dropping out of the continuity of life. . . . An adventure is certainly part of our existence, directly contiguous with other parts which precede or follow it; at the same time, however, in its deeper meaning, it occurs outside the usual continuity of this life. . . . We ascribe to an adventure a beginning and end much sharper than those to be discovered in other forms of experience. . . . The adventure lacks that reciprocal interpenetration with adjacent parts of life which constitute “life-as-a-whole.” It is like an island in life which determines its beginning and end according to its own formative powers.”
Most of my stories start near the arc of the dramatic conflict. I don’t give a lot of detail about what went on before; I just start it fairly near the end of the swing action.
The inciting incident causes a change of fortune: an individual, family, town, or country goes from a desirable to an undesirable state (or vice versa). The inciting incident motivates the protagonist to take action.
An asteroid the size of Texas is about to collide with the earth. Someone must intervene. A serial killer stalks the neighborhood—someone must apprehend him. A baby lies abandoned on a doorstep—someone must take care of it. An invading army must be conquered. A man-eating shark has to be destroyed. An outbreak of disease must be quarantined and an antidote made available.
The inciting incident requires a response. Something must be done and done now.
Determining the inciting incident turns your focus on the story’s conflict. All stories are about conflict. Without a problem, there is no story. And everyone in your novel will somehow become involved in the incident. Everything everyone does will in some way affect its outcome.
2. THE GOAL
As Ray Bradbury says, “Give him a compulsion and turn him loose!”
The goal is the “thing” your protagonist strives to win throughout the story. There’s something he wants because of what happened. What is your hero hoping to achieve?
After you identify the goal, ask yourself:
- What does my hero want to achieve by the end of the story?
- How will my readers know this is what he wants?
- Can my readers envision what achieving the goal will look like?
- Will they be rooting for my hero to reach the finish line?”
Continue to ask these questions with each scene you write. What does my hero want at this moment? How is the immediate goal linked to the ultimate goal? How do my protagonist’s actions in this scene move him closer to the overall desire? If you don’t have answers for these questions, you may have veered off course.
How does my hero plan to pursue his objective? Does he have a clear vision for how he hopes to achieve his ends? Does he intend to wing it?
Continuous opposition must push against your hero as he tries to push toward his goal. The protagonist must be at the point of internal combustibility, where the conflict in his outer life demands an inner transformation to move forward. The resistance can be seen as a series of people, things and situations, as well as the character’s inner self saying no to him.
What stands in his way? Ask this of every scene.
Life or death, love, loss of friendship, loss of career—something crucial must hang in the balance.
6. THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition have overcome your hero. It appears as though he has lost the fight.
7. THE REVELATION
But overcoming his blackest night, your protagonist learns a valuable lesson. He understands something that he didn’t understand at the outset. Stories are about people growing or changing. By the end of your novel, your character is wiser, stronger, has a little more faith. In some way, he has evolved.