Plotting - 10 Basic Dos and Don’ts

Plotting – 10 Basic Dos and Don’ts


We often have frustrated first time novelists on our courses. They are trying to complete a book, but they haven’t thought about plotting. [Suggested reading: The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book]

The antagonist’s function is to try to prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her story goal. The antagonist raises the stakes for the protagonist and causes excitement, tension, and a plot.

[Writing Tip: The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. If you don’t have an antagonist you don’t have a plot. There are some great tips for writing about antagonists in 10 Essential Tips for Writing Antagonists.]

Alfred Hitchcock said that a great story is: ‘life, with the dull parts taken out.’ With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of what a plot is and isn’t about.

A plot is not about:

  1. Contented characters who live a trouble-free existence.
  2. An author or character’s interior thought processes.
  3. An author or character’s philosophy of life.
  4. An author trying to send a message.
  5. A character battling the elements, or society, or a life condition.

A plot is about:

  1. Characters whose lives have been turned upside down in a negative way.
  2. Characters who act and react.
  3. Characters who talk, breathe, eat, argue and interact with other characters.
  4. Characters whose actions and words show a story.
  5. A character who takes on another character who may represent or personify, society or a life condition.

If you are an exceptional author, you may not need a plot. The rest of us do.

Writing Tip: Always remember your reader: 10 Things Aspiring Novelists Should Know

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

Are you looking for more inspiration? Read these posts:

  1. The 5 Qualities Published Authors Share
  2. The Writing Secrets of 10 Authors
  3. 10 Writers On The Inspiration Myth

This article has 14 comments

  1. Richard Vobes

    Hmm, while I agree in general terms with what you are saying, I find all the ‘A plot is this …’ and ‘You must not do this …’ very prescriptive. As far as I am concerned, it is the writer who writes and who makes the rules for their work. We have to conform to market forces if, perhaps, we want to make sales of our work, but I think the freedom to write what a writer wants is essential. You may strongly disagree. Good for you. 🙂

  2. Leroy Hill

    Very intriguing info. I’m working on a project and I really need to read this info. Thanks big time….

  3. Ron Estrada

    Good post, Amanda. I have an issue, though. I made the jump from mystery/suspense to more of a post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre. I’m finding it difficult to keep an antagonist in the story. My protag is on the run from the government, and I can identify a single government agent to pursue him, but he’s not visible for most of the story. The real enemy is the collapse of society (as in Atlas Shrugged) and a hostile government trying to maintain control. I know I have to represent the enemy with a single face, but am finding it much more difficult than with a murder mystery. What advice would you give to those of us venturing into such waters? Is it really necessary to always put a human face on the antagonist?

  4. Writers Write

    Ron, I believe you should always have an antagonist who is invested in ‘getting’ your protagonist. The more powerful the antagonist the more abundant the henchmen, but he or she should be the driving force behind them.
    The most successful dystopian fiction selling today, gives the enemy a face. I’m not going to comment on ‘Atlas Shrugged’ because it’s silly to compare fiction written many years ago with what people enjoy reading now.
    As mentioned, one of my favourite examples of a successful antagonist in this genre in film is Mr Smith in ‘The Matrix’.
    President Snow in ‘The Hunger Games’ is also an excellent example. The books would be so much weaker without him.
    ~Amanda Patterson

  5. Nina Arora

    Liked the tips very much! Thanks! @Ron Estrada, interesting idea. Perhaps you can give the enemy a collective name ie CIA or simply say Washington or Parliament in the sense that there is a collective blame if not a singular representative. Clooney’s Syriana created that sense of menace lurking behind the columns and corridors of power.

  6. Ron Estrada

    Good point, Amanda. I think “driving force” is the key term. Taking Hunger Games as the example. President Snow is rarely seen, but his presence is always felt. It’s clearly understood that he’s the motivating factor behind Katniss’ troubles. The “face” of Snow is the career from district 1. I think I see my connection now. I have a face on the ground, I just need to maintain the presence of the antagonist, whether he is actually present in the scenes or not. Hitler never stepped on a battlefield, but ask any soldier who the enemy was…

  7. Grace

    I have to disagree with #5. “A plot is not a character battling the elements, or society, or a life condition.”

    Yep, it certainly can be. Let’s not forget the five basic types of conflict:

    Man vs. Man
    Man vs. Nature
    Man vs. God or the supernatural
    Man vs. Society
    Man vs. Himself

    Any of those things can rise up against the protagonist’s story goal and be a completely valid source of conflict. It’s not written anywhere that all stories have to have man against man conflict. That’s presumptuous, don’t you think?

    Yes, it’s sometimes harder to plot a story where the conflict comes from a source other than another human antagonist, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done or can’t be done well. It can if the opposing force is strong enough to provide real conflict and challenges the protagonist to change in some way.

    That’s what really makes a story compelling: change. There’s nothing more boring or dissatisfactory than a character who remains unchanged by a conflict, no matter the source. (Unless it’s a serial story. Those are often most compelling when a character must repeatedly resist change.)

  8. Writers Write

    Grace, I stand by my article. No, I think it’s not presumptuous. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot during my 13 years of teaching creative writing. I believe the other stories are best suited to journals and essays. They also work well as documentaries and in film ~Amanda Patterson

  9. Anthony Ehlers

    Great stories always have antagonistic forces in them. They usually have antagonism:
    1) In the form of a main antagonist
    2) In the form of a system
    3) In the geography or setting
    4) In the hero of the story himself

    Great example of this would be Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett fights against just about every character in the story, while coping with the Civil War, hot Southern summers, and battles against her own selfish nature and stubborn pride. When you have all four, the story becomes epic.

  10. xmarisolx

    I love that a plot is not a character’s internal thoughts. SO, SO TRUE!

  11. Tirzah Duncan

    Along with others here, I bristle at number five of the “not” list.

    Who is the antagonist in “To Build a Fire”? The cold, or perhaps the man’s own shortsightedness.

    Does it, then, lack a plot? No; in fact, it follows one of the most common plot structures one sees; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

    To deny that it and others like it have legitimate plots, are legitimate stories, seems presumptuous–and I might go so far as to say, preposterous. You can state that you don’t feel like these read as stories, but others, myself included, feel differently.

    What of the famous six-word short story, supposed to be Hemingway’s:
    “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”?
    More debatable, to be sure, and yet cited for its power–as a short story. Are all the people who call it a story, readers and writers both, unarguably wrong because these six words lack an antagonist? ‘Steeth, a protagonist is barely implied, and yet many see a whole and perfect tragedy in the words.

    Many people have spent many years thinking about creative writing, reading stories critically, writing and re-writing them, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one such who would call that fifth point errant.

    For all that, while disagreeing, I wouldn’t call my own feelings and opinions facts. Storytelling is an art, not a science. The rules of it are simply the results of feedback gathered from the audience from age to age, with bards and writers doing more of what the people clap for, and less of what they don’t. And the feedback I’ve witnessed would seem to suggest many people are happy to read “To Build a Fire” and other such stories and call them just that–stories.

  12. Jane

    Good advice of guidelines. I do, however, agree with Grace about #5 ( “A plot is not a character battling the elements, or society, or a life condition.” ).

    I believe anything can be a plot (elements, society or a life condition) as long as the writer gives the element, society or a life condition antagonistic qualities or makes it larger than the protagonist so the protagonist has to work to overcome it. I do not believe another character (as in a human) has to represent or personify society or a life condition in a plot. I believe those things can just be what they are–as long as they are bigger than the protagonist. I think an antagonist can mimic or be symbolic of an element, society, or life condition. I will further say, if the element, condition, or society work in conjunction with the antagonist it can make for great symbolism and an even greater villain. I’m thinking of Shutter Island in which the MC appears to be battling a mystery but he is really battling himself (remembering the trigger of his fugue state). The elements and conditions surrounding him are symbolic of what he is experiencing mentally.

  13. Leroy Hill

    Keep them coming

  14. Thomas Allbaugh

    I partially agree with you. I do think that a good plot results from conflict. However, I think there are far too many stories with straw man antagonists, cliched bad guys who are jokes. While all fiction requires some sort of conflict, I would argue that not all story conflict has to come from confrontations with the bad guy. That’s just too reductive.

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