Creating a story without at least some idea of your plot is like planning a trip without a route: You’re likely to wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.
But strong plot is more than just a series of interesting events. It’s a foundational element of what creates story—the road along which your character travels and is changed en route to a strongly held desire.
This basic definition of story means that plot is intrinsically tied to character. As a story element it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is both driven by and drives the protagonist: what she wants, the steps she takes to get it, and how she’s affected by each step on that journey.
You can adapt how much you decide to plot in advance of drafting based on whether you’re a die-hard plotter, a pantser, or something in between (“plantser”), but framing the overarching story as well as each scene within it through the lens of your characters and these three key elements—the want, the action, and the shift—will help guide you through creating a consistently cohesive and propulsive plot.
Think of your protagonist(s) as Tarzan.
If you want him to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, your job as the author is to make sure there’s a vine within reach when he needs it, that it swings him smoothly through the jungle canopy, and that there’s another vine ready for his grasp when he reaches the end of that arc. He can travel the whole jungle that way, all the way home to Jane.
That’s the sense readers should have of your character’s journey—that they’re effortlessly borne along with your protagonist on an unbroken series of arcs toward the final destination. The want is the vine awaiting the character’s grasp; the action is the swing; and the shift is the transfer from one vine to the next awaiting vine.
If any of these three stages fail, that smooth momentum is broken and you risk sending your protagonist—and your reader—plummeting to the forest floor, or stranded in the treetops or on a motionless vine.
This formula applies not just to each individual scene, but to the story as a whole. Before you even begin drafting, see if you can define your story through the lens of the want, the action, and the shift:
Hypercautious Marlon is desperate to keep his sole remaining child close to the safety of home and his protection after the rest of their family is killed, but when his son is swept out to sea, Marlon must face the dangers of the open ocean in trying to find him—and learns that life must be lived fully, despite the risks.
Did you recognize the key plot points in Finding Nemo?
- The want is clownfish Marlon’s desire to keep Nemo safe in their little anemone and corner of the sea.
- The resultant action is his journey to track Nemo down and bring him safely home, and all the challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and advances along the path to that goal.
- The shift is Marlon’s realization that he can’t shelter Nemo from every danger, and that a meaningful life can’t be lived in fear.
Even if this is all you establish before starting to write, it will still create a map to keep you on track as you travel the road of your story. And as a bonus, it can also double as a clear, concise log line to use when you’re ready to query and pitch.
How scenes work with want, action, and shift
The want, the action, and the shift should also form the foundation of each scene within the story, either as you outline or as you’re drafting. In stories with the strongest momentum, every single scene in the plot comprises a necessary step along the protagonist(s)’ path toward their ultimate goal—each scene is a “mini-story” of its own, with its own want, action, and shift, each in service to the über want-action-shift we defined above.
One of the most important skills an actor learns is never to walk onstage without knowing what their character wants in that scene. The same goes for fiction: Before you begin writing a scene, know what “want” your character enters with. That’s how you put that vine in Tarzan’s hand as he reaches for it.
- A character’s want in a scene might be a strong, tangible, urgent goal: to rescue the princess, to escape the bad guy, to win a promotion or a love interest or a battle.
- It might be a less concrete, internal one: to attain a parent’s approval, to assuage a spouse’s anger, to help a friend.
- The immediate want could also be a subtractive goal: Your characters might want to not feel a certain way, or to avoid a particular outcome.
You don’t have to have a major story- or character-defining goal in every scene—as long as whatever that “want” is directly or indirectly serves the character’s overarching want in the story: i.e., attaining this immediate goal will (theoretically) move the character closer to her end-goal.
As a direct result of her desire for that goal, your character should take some definitive action to attain it—this is the swing of the vine that moves us through the story.
If, for instance, your protagonist’s “want” in a scene is to avoid yet another fight with her partner, what does she do to pursue that goal? Does she come into the house with a big smile and a bouquet of flowers? Slink in the garage door as quietly as possible so as not to draw her partner’s attention or ire? Not go home at all, but instead delay her arrival with an extended happy hour with friends?
This scene, then, will be about her attempting to achieve her want by taking those specific actions—and whatever results from what she chooses to do (or not do) will create further action within the scene:
- Maybe she succeeds in disarming her partner with the flowers, and the two wind up having an unexpectedly pleasant evening together over wine and a nice dinner.
- Perhaps she tries sneaking silently inside, but her partner intercepts her with a hurt expression, asking why she’s avoiding them, and the evening ends in wounded feelings and tears the protagonist can’t assuage.
- Maybe she gets home late from her unannounced happy hour, only to find her partner waiting up for her, loaded for bear, and a spectacular fight ensues.
The character’s action in the scene will either move her closer to her end goal or cause a setback from it. In either case, readers need to see how she is affected by the results of her actions, and how they change her behavior, thoughts, and actions going forward—the “shift” that directs readers toward that next vine, a.k.a. the new want that results from the character’s shift.
If our hypothetical protagonist enjoys an unexpectedly nice evening with her partner, for example, maybe it changes her attitude toward them, and the next day she finds herself eager to get home, planning to surprise her partner with dinner from their favorite restaurant.
That original shift led to a new want, which will lead to new action. Is her partner not home and our protagonist tries to figure out where she went? Or have they reverted to their resentment of her and start another fight? Or do the two sit down over dinner and decide to work on their relationship and save it? Which will lead to a new shift…a new want…new action…and so on.
This pattern of want-action-shift creates powerful momentum, vine to swing to new vine, over and over, and creates a plot that keeps readers carried effortlessly, seamlessly along throughout your story.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, please join me and Tiffany on Oct. 6 for the class 5 Steps to an Airtight Plot.
Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing, and leads seminars and workshops for writers around the country. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she’s also the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren’t (Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.