The purpose of a plot is to prove your story’s premise.
If the theme of your novel is “the triumph of the human spirit” and your premise is “two people who are willing to struggle to the point of death can change the direction of a war,” the events in your plot must prove that premise.
A novel is a story of change. You begin your book near the point where the protagonist’s life is irretrievably disrupted. Whether or not she wants to, she must begin a journey that will turn her into a different person by the end and perhaps even change world events.
You’re not going to “tell” a story. You’re going to show it, and if you show it well, the reader will understand the story’s underlying meaning. As the author, you’ll never have to state the premise directly. Don’t tell us how we should feel. Don’t tell us how the characters feel. Show us through their dialogue and their actions, and we’ll understand the true soul of your novel. Every event you choose for your plot should lead us to that conclusion.
As you’re constructing your plot, there are several elements you should consider carefully.
Readers must care what happens to your lead characters. Remember, a novel is all about emotion. The worst thing a reader can say is he felt nothing.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be perfect. Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t, but when the hard times hit she took care of her family and home. Your protagonist should have faults and wounds, which affect a great portion of her life, but she’ll come to terms with them by the end of the story.
She should want something important? It’s better if her goal affects people other than herself. Her struggle to attain it won’t be easy. She may start out as ordinary, but by the end of the novel she should be extraordinary. If the plot has no question, no suspense, no change, the reader has no reason to turn the page.
If she doesn’t get what she wants, will something bad happen or will life just go back to the way it was? If she returns to her life unaltered, your plot is flawed.
If your protagonist seems too predictable, turn the stereotype on its head. Make her love spiders and snakes. Make her afraid to fly in an airplane, but eager to drive a racecar. Make her a prim spinster who falls in love with an alcoholic ne'er-do-well. Think it won’t be plausible? Read C. S. Forester’s The African Queen. Rose Sayer is the spinster; Charlie Allnut is the disreputable alcoholic.
Make your characters extreme. Make them memorable.
To create suspense, your plot must have an uncertain outcome. If your protagonist’s actions seem predictable, consider having her do the opposite. Or do as Dwight Swain suggests in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “drop a corpse through the roof.”
And make sure your protagonist has a worthy opponent. If your antagonist is weak, then your protagonist isn’t required to be strong. It’s your job as the author to put pressure on your main character, because it is through failure and success that we learn a person’s true worth.
If your protagonist has struggled to the best of her ability, if she has suffered enough, she will be rewarded—if not by attaining her goal, then by acquiring wisdom. She may not get what she wants, but she should get what she deserves.
The African Queen, first published in 1935, has all the elements of a good plot with one exception. It’s the story of two unlikely co-protagonists, Rosie and Charlie, who take a derelict boat down a treacherous Central African river, intending to shoot a torpedo into a German police steamer. With the improbable hope of “striking a blow for England,” the pair battle perilous rapids, exhausting heat, a broken propeller, malaria, leech-infested water and a plague of ravenous insects. They struggle to the point of death.
The author should have given them the ending they deserved, but he didn’t. Rosie and Charlie could not have been more heroic, but in the novel they fail in their mission.
You could write a better ending. In fact, the writers of the movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart did just that. In the novel, the Germans take them prisoner. The German boat eventually sinks, not because of Rosie and Charlie’s efforts, but because two British motor boats attack it. C. S. Forrest failed his readers, but the movie was a hit.
Plotting sounds easy. Take an ordinary person who must do extraordinary things against powerful forces to reach a goal. If he triumphs, reward him and return him to the rest of his life a changed person.
Unfortunately, plotting isn’t that easy, but then nothing about writing a novel is.