It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

A plot, also called a storyline or narrative, is the sequential list of events which make up a story. These events are linked together within the framework of the story, and occur one after the other as the reader progresses through the story. They may not be revealed chronologically, and multiple events may be occurring simultaneously, but the reader — going through the story line by line — is generally only able to see one event at a time. Events may be “seen” in the sense that they are described as happening at that moment, on the page, or they may occur “off stage”. Offstage, unseen, events can be recounted by a character who was there/heard about the event, to a character who is listening to the event being described, or can be hinted at by revealing the ways in which the event affected others without describing the actual event.

While a story can have any number of events, for it to be interesting and complete, it must have three event points on its plot. Less than that, and the story is either incomplete (a vignette or character study) or it usually fails to be interesting. Often, a plot with fewer than three events is both incomplete and boring. Think of it like this:

Event A and/or/but Event B, so Event C.

That’s a complete plot. Without those three points, you’re not telling a story.

Now, before we get more into what is a plot point, we need to rule out all of the things that aren’t:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Place
  • Genre
  • Passage of time without implied/stated change of events

A character is a person, or anthopomorphic animal or object, which has stated qualities that set them apart from another similar person/animal/object. Examples:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman.
  • Karl is a 35-year old German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur.

By themselves, those descriptions do not contain events, even when they are giving the character qualities not possessed by all others. Age, color, race, geography — these are not events. They do not place the character within a story. There is no history, no arc, no context.

However, there are descriptions which contain events, and therefore reveal plot points:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman waiting outside the diner for her date to arrive.
  • Karl is a 35-year old unemployed German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas, living in California.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s, where she was abandoned.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur lying in the backyard.

Some of the events are more obvious than others, but each of those characters now is fixed to at least one event. Jenny is waiting, in a particular place, for a date that has not yet begun. In order for her to be there, she had to have made a plan, traveled to the diner, and she has not yet met up with her date. She has three events tied to her in that one sentence. Karl, by being described as unemployed, must have either once been employed but was separated from his job, or is expected to be employed but has failed to do so.

Lee has moved from Texas to California. Taffy used to belong to people, but now she doesn’t. Rex was placed in the backyard, either intentionally or unintentionally, by someone else, or moved there on his own (depending on the type of story). Though more about these events can be inferred because the age, place, and other descriptors imply greater depth to the events (Lee was either moved there by adults who made the decision for him, or ran away, since a 15 year old rarely has the legal right to move alone; if he does, that’s even more complex) they are still single events: one move, one loss of a former life, one moment where the character is no longer where it once was.

In the same way, setting, place, and genre describe the environment of a story, but do not necessarily include events. Saying that your story is a space opera or is set in Chicago in 1925, or takes place entirely underground, does not fully explain the story. Most authors know this, so these descriptions often include one plot point as a base. How often have you heard something like, “My story is about:

  • A steampunk werewolf in ancient China
  • Two Russian spies in Paris
  • A femme fatale/sorceress in the 1940s
  • the ghost of a small girl in rural Kansas”

Those aren’t actually stories. Those mostly aren’t even what the story is about. They’re who the story is about.

The werewolf is a character who is currently alive (in the context of the story). The werewolf  lives in China in ancient times (at least a thousand years ago). However, this is not the China we know, this an alt-history China where “steampunk” objects are part of the culture. If this is it, there are literally no events happening here. We can’t assume that being a werewolf implies a past event because we don’t know if the character was made into a werewolf or was been born one. We don’t even know if this character is Chinese.

We could add more description. He (let’s assign him a gender) is a Chinese person alive during the time of the Yellow Emperor, around 2650 BC. The werewolf’s name is Zhuanyi, and he lives outside of any large cities. Perhaps he lives alone, by a small stream, and rarely sees other people. Is it a story yet?

No.

It’s not unusual to see in your head a character that appeals to you in some way, or a setting that you imagine is strange enough to be intriguing. To take it from idea to tale, you need to flesh it out. Give us a way to see how something in your story changed from something else, and why that matters. But, you say, you love Zhuanyi! He’s perfect to be set up as a tortured but sympathetic protagonist, and you feel your readers would love him as well. Okay, then — how do we turn this idea of our werewolf into a real story? We add events:

Event one: Zhuanyi suddenly discovers that he had been born a werewolf (or possibly cursed/enchanted into being one) because one day he transformed into a wolf without any prior warning that this would occur.

Without additional information, that transforming moment is still only one event. It doesn’t mean anything. He has become something he was not before, but we don’t yet have a reason to care about him. Well, what if our werewolf knows from a prior (off screen) event that werewolves are considered criminals by the Emperor, and if he were discovered, he would be sentenced to death?

That’s a setup that could lead to an event, but our guy lives alone in the middle of nowhere. He could howl at the moon to his heart’s content and no one would ever know. Still not a story. Until…

Event two: a wandering monk spots Zhuanyi transforming into a wolf AND this affects Zhuanyi in some way. If the monk saw but didn’t believe or care, and he wanders out of the picture without anyone learning anything new, this isn’t a real event. It’s part of the setting. The monk is a piece of scenery. There’s a wolf and a moon and a monk who leaves without affecting the story, and a tree, and some fish in river, and… Boring. (If it were the monk’s story, and after he leaves we see how this event — spotting the werewolf — affected him, that’d be an event, but we’re not reading the monk’s story. Let’s stay on the werewolf.) Monk sees transformation and runs off to tell the nearest royal/town/military outpost/etc… Now that’s an event. Something has happened.

One last thing… Why is that formula up at the top “A, then B, and so C” instead of “A happened, and then B happened, and then C happened”? Because a string of events is not a story unless one or more of them has an effect. I could tell you that the wolf is in the river, transforming, the monk is on the hill, terrified, and the Emperor is in his palace, drawing little pictures of soldiers sticking spears into wolfmen, but those are just pieces. Put together, you’re painting an image of a moment, and rather vividly.

To be a story, we need “So”. A wandering monk reports to the police that Zhuanyi is actually a werewolf, and because that has been deemed illegal by the Emperor, SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS. Zhuanyi has to fight off a horde of soldiers. Zhuanyi travels in secret to the palace to beg the Emperor for his life. Zhuanyi goes on the run and has to leave behind his old life to survive.

Whatever it is, that’s a story. One character has his life changed, and you get to read about how that happened.

Of course, more plot points will make for a more interesting story (perhaps the Emperor has been goaded into banning werewolves because he’s under the influence of a vampire, and Zhuanyi can save him from this by fighting the vampire, or while the army never catches up to Zhuanyi, his flight from prosecution lands him in a foreign land where he has new adventures, or falls in love, or…) but if you have at least three connected events happening over time, you’ve got the basics.

If you think of any story which you enjoyed and felt, at the end, you’d gotten a good sense of, count up the events. Less than 3? Leave me a comment and we’ll discuss it. There’s a chance that you’re simply not seeing the events which are revealed indirectly, but I’d love to see any examples.

#SFWAPro

13 thoughts on “It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

    • Thanks for sharing that link!

      Absolutely agree that you can take this “rule” further, but the point was to provide a bare minimum, not an all-encompassing guideline. I consider it a “Step 1” sort of post. I’ll have to write a Step 2 soon 😀

  1. This is so useful. 😀 I am terrible at plots! And every time I say so, somebody says to me “character is plot”. Is it? Is it really?

    • “Character is plot” is an oversimplification. With the character-centered approach, as I understand it, you should start at how your character develops throughout the course of the story: character has to do something in order to achieve a goal/change in some way. But the events are still crucial, as it is the events that initiate, hinder and force the actual change. In other words, we use the events to drive the character arc.

      The risk if we start at the events is that we might forget to develop the character at the same time, leaving us with a very exciting story starring a flat character. If we sort out the character arc first we can pick events that specifically serves the character development, but if the events are not gripping enough we end with a character study.

      So, whether you are working character-centered or plot-centered, events and character arc are both really important, and having a great character doesn’t automatically guarantee a good plot.

      • This post wasn’t about what makes a “great” plot. It’s simply a baseline for bare minimums. I don’t suggest you “start at the events”; I remind you to make certain that you have events. Without action/events/movement in time, you don’t have a plot at all.

        • Hi Carrie. I wasn’t implying that you’re saying “start at the events”. I was merely replying to Charlotte’s question about the “character is plot” argument. I fully agree with you that the events are important.

          • Don’t worry — that comment wasn’t a criticism. It’s something I want to be clear about because it’s always tempting to take a post like this as a “writing rule” that will solve all of our problems. There’s so much more to writing a great story than only making sure it has 3 plot points/events in it, but this is one of the things to keep in mind when you start.

            I like when the comment discussions take a post further than just what I said, and I’d like that to continue here, but want to be on the right track with it.

    • Character is central to a character story, and entwined with plot in the sense that a plot without a character (as in my post, this can be human, animal, object) to care about, the plot has no emotional resonance. But “character is plot”? No, I don’t think so.

  2. Great post. Tying into this, I just read a post on Writer Unboxed, which talks about plotting, too. It builds upon your idea of events, noting that it’s not just about an event happening, but a problem occurring that the character has to overcome that makes the story. As in your Event #2, if the monk sees the character change into a werewolf and runs off to tell the village, then that’s a potential problem for the character.

    • There are plenty of wonderful stories without an obstacle to overcome, so I’d be cautious of considering that a rule. Sometimes the story is about the way that we grasp the good things that come into our lives as well.

      Using the example from the story, what if it wasn’t a monk, but a princess who saw the transformation? And, having immediately fallen in love with Zhuanyi, she returns to the Emperor, convinces him to change the law for the sake of her love (which he does, immediately, for his daughter) and she returns to Zhuanyi to profess her love without him ever knowing this was happening. His werewolfism is then the cause of his life changing in a happy way. Is that not a story?

      • That’s a good point. And now that I think about it, not every story I’ve read involves a problem, per se (some stories even seem to have nothing much happen, but are still compelling).

        Though even in your new example, Zhuanyi face a problem (the law), which is solved through convincing the Emperor to change it.

        Every “rule” or suggestion for writing has an except or many exceptions, which is something I need to continually remind myself of.

  3. Loved this post! Nice to be reminded of starting points every now and then when you’re in the middle of plotting a new book, ya know, the whole forest for the trees thing.

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