The plot is the journey you create for both your characters and the readers. Although most stories are character-driven, the plot is just as important. It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They have to work together to get the right taste of the sandwich. Not too much peanut butter, not too much jelly. But how can you do this… especially if you aren’t much of a planner?
Every story has a general structure: the plot mountain. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you should at least create a simple sketch first. When you write, it should be like hiking up the mountain. You already know the basic direction it’s going, but there are a couple of surprises along the way. It’s all about the journey—for yourself, your characters, and your reader. And what you discover on this journey is what will make your story unique.
So when you write—whether an outliner or not—keep this plot mountain in mind:
The exposition is when you introduce the setting and your characters. This is also when you introduce your protagonist's basic need, hidden need, and goal. Near the end of the rising action, include small conflicts which will lead to the huge event at the climax, when the character has to make big decisions. The falling action is when your protagonist should change the most. By the end of the mountain—the resolution—try not to make everything happy, perfect, and as if the protagonist is a totally different person now all because of the climax. That’s not realistic.
Once you reach the climax, remember that this is when you should avoid being nice to your characters. When I came home from the conference last week, I went straight to my manuscript and added more conflict. Don’t be scared of doing that. God allows suffering, so you shouldn’t be too afraid of allowing that to happen to your characters. There should always be a storm before the rainbow appears—and that storm should occur at the peak of the mountain. The “rainbow” should appear near the end of the mountain. Suffering is a time when people learn the most.
Don’t try to cover too much in your plot’s “message”, but don’t let it be too subtle, either. Let something on the outside happen that causes the reader to deal with something on the inside—spiritual, personal questions. Allow the “change” to happen gradually and naturally. Try not to wrap up your plot in a happy ending, where your main character is now perfect and has no more problems to face. Be realistic. Those are the stories that can really relate to readers.
Before you begin to write, ask yourself this question: what’s the purpose of this story? Or, what is it’s theme? Sometimes the answers to these questions will unfold as you hike up the mountain. Also, don’t try to “change” your reader and lead them to Christ immediately. Just write. God will do the rest.
“You can get the horses ready for battle, but it is the Lord who gives the victory.”