How We Write Wednesdays: Plot Points You Toward Better Drafting

I asked the #weWRITE faithful on Twitter what terms and trending craft topics did they want us to explain in more detail. The top choice? Plot points, and how come they’re so important to the escalating tension in a story. It sounds basic, but Jenni and I have learned, just like every other working fiction writer, that you can never take for granted just how important the basics are.

First, let’s start with quick glimpse back at where How We Write Wednesdays (HoWW) has already been:


In March, Jenni covered basic story structure terms. It’s a great blog on the “secret” to discovering your own writing process (because as much as we like to teach together, we’ve learned that we plot very differently). Go back and read it for that insight alone. But within the post is an excellent summary of the basic turning points within a novel: Inciting Incident, 1st Turning Point, 2nd Turning Point (also known as Midpoint), 3rd Turning Point, Dark Moment/Black Moment, and Climactic Scene. This  is a purely external way to look at the bones of your story. What happens and how each major thing that happens is connected to the next (and the last) one.

In February, I shared my “Character Chart” that I use to plan/plot my characters’ emotional arc through the beginning (Inciting Incident), Middle (2nd Turning Point) and end (Dark Moment/Black Moment) of a story. Take another look, to get a refresher on how I chart my characters’ internal growth through the three most important turning points in a novel, long before I figure out exactly how I’m going to motivate the character(s) externally.

So, that’s the basics, at least the way we seen them. But what does it all mean, when you’re looking at planning/plotting, drafting, and revising your own story?After all, figuring out how to do all this YOUR way is what’s HoWW and #weWRITE are all about. So far this year, we’ve covered character, planning/plotting, rewriting, and drafting…and never once have we said you have to do any of this OUR way ;o) 

When I asked what you wanted to talk about most in your process, someone asked what the popular buzz phrase “upping these stakes” really means. Jenni’s going to go into more detail on the technique next week (using details from one of her workshops), but for now, let’s see what we can learn from the two examples above. That is–how, when you’re either planning, drafting or revising, can you be sure that you’re upping the stakes enough in your novel?

I taught the amazing ladies at CRW this last weekend something key I learned from Robert McKee: plot is character. Whatever happens to one, must change the other. You CAN’T change one, without impacting the other.

Keeping that in mind as you do your prep work for a story, discover during your drafting phase, and refine your work as you rewrite–that’s your job as a writer. That’s your story. That’s how you keep your reader hooked and involved and dying to know what happens next. That’s upping the stakes (with every scene and chapter and turning point you create).

girl writing

Let me give you a quick example, then we’ll talk more over on #weWRITE until Jenni picks up the conversation on her blog next week:

  • With the prep work you’ve done investigating your character’s back story, you know what kind of ordinary world (another story structure term, generally referring to the opening of a story, showing the protagonist in his normal life before we throw conflict at him/her) you should paint to give the reader a glimpse of who a character is and what drives him/her (at least on the surface)–emotionally, where the character is as the story opens. You also know how to set the character up for the first change you’re going to force him/her into, so that there’s something at stake (emotionally and externally) that he/she can’t NOT act on.
  • Enter the Inciting Incident–something unexpected happening in the external plot  that hooks the character (and the reader) into the flow of the story. A change is required for the character to take the journey, motivated by what’s happened in the past and directed toward some (tangible) goal the character thinks he/she can achieve in the near future. Why is he/she willing to take this leap? Well, because you’ve just upped the stakes in the character’s life (put something new on the line) and you’ve properly motivated the character to act. Unfortunately, or your story ends here, he/she cannot succeed at facing this challenge. At least, not completely. Failure becomes his/her motivation to confront the next conflict.
  • By the midpoint of the story, whatever this initial external goal is must have met with substantial, growing conflict and challenges, so that the character has been forced to rethink and refine his/her goal and motivation. New insights have been gained, and the emotional/external stakes have grown. To the point that an even bigger obstacle pushes the character to fully commit (emotionally) to the ultimate story goal (different or more complex than than the Inciting Incident). He can no longer turn his back on what he/she has to do. Emotionally and externally, the character’s now motivated to put everything on the line for what he thinks he wants most.
  • At the Dark Moment (which I plan, emotionally, in my Character Charting process as soon as I know what’s motivating the character at the Inciting Incident), the final/ultimate obstacle is revealed (mirroring the initial challenge and taking the midpoint’s conflict to an even more extreme place). If the character hasn’t learned enough emotionally from his/her journey, if his motivation isn’t fully aligned with the real goal that will bring him resolution, he will fail at this challenge as well, just as he did the Inciting Incident.

It sounds like a lot. And it is. It’s a story. And good story is complicated. Good characters are complicated. It’s all intertwined, how and why the character is pulled into a journey and how we (writers) pull him through the events that we challenge him with. The cold, hard fact is–you can plan carefully and draft with abandoned and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, but if you don’t nail the escalating tension of the above story/character arcs, you novel will sag somewhere. You’ll lose your reader’s enchantment with what you’re doing. This is the guts of why we buy into one novel, and the next one leaves us cold.

Jenni and I have been teaching HoWW for months, sharing basics and getting everyone talking. And the basics are pretty simple, when you look at them objectively. But there’s nothing objective about how you take all of this and create something magical in your work-in-progress. That challenge, more than anything else, is what we hope we’re helping to excite and motivate you into learning more about and doing more with and understanding more of with each word and page you write.

The key to writing our novels and to making HoWW and #weWRITE work for all of us is sharing these ideas and talking about what they really mean, beyond quick fixes and 10-steps to success lists, and what it’s like to put all these terms and techniques to work, and how we all feel lost sometimes, and how we all fail over and over until we finally get it write. And nothing feels better than getting it right…

So, that’s a bit of what we’d like HoWW to become going forward. More tying things together into practical examples that we can talk about on #weWRITE. More asking you what you’d like to learn about most. Don’t forget Jenni’s going to teach Upping the Stakes next Wednesday. And starting in July, we’re going to have guest bloggers join us (both published and unpublished authors) to share their insight.

This is your space. This is your series. Let us know what you’d like to talk about next!

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3 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Plot Points You Toward Better Drafting”

  1. M.E. Anders says:

    Thanks for this plotting post…I’m going to check out the Character Chart, since I missed that post. You’re the best! :)

  2. I’ve been looking forward to this all week and want to thank you for all the great info here. Thanks!

  3. Katie says:

    Thanks for this! Motivations and emotional arcs have always gotten less of my focus than they deserve.

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