Plot Tips for a Compulsively Readable Story

In honor of all of you toiling away for NaNoWriMo, we’ve got a few tips on plot that we hope will help you as you race toward the finish line. Of course, some of you may be pantsers, those wildly confident types who manage to fly by the seat of their pants, letting the plot unfurl as they type. There’s an appealing brazenness to that method, but for writers who prefer to take a less daredevil approach—the many plotters out there—we humbly offer three plot-related tips to help you keep readers enthralled from the opening line. You may be familiar with the basic leaning mountain–shaped plot diagram: a tiny horizontal line of exposition followed by the long climb up the mountain of the rising action to the climax at the summit, followed by the steep descent of the falling action and then a tidy little horizontal line of resolution. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here’s what it looks like:

Exposition

Beware. Here lurks the danger of the information dump. Obviously, you want to give your readers some background as they delve into your story, but you’ll need to work hard not to bog your narrative down with long-winded explanations of each character’s entire life story up until this point during these crucial opening pages. Make every effort to weave backstory into the plot in small chunks and as seamlessly as possible. By cunningly embedding concrete details in-scene (there’s that old adage “Show don’t tell” again) and strategically dispersing them throughout the early chapters, you’ll avoid the deathblow of losing narrative flow and hence the reader’s attention.

Rising Action

As the story enters the long ascent to the climax, the key to holding readers’ attention is to keep raising the stakes. Consider the obstacles you’re putting in your characters’ way and make sure you order them so that they build on one another. This increasing tension is key to propelling the reader forward. If you’re writing a character-driven novel, it may not be about coming out guns blazing with bigger action scenes, of course; instead, think of how every challenge exposes some new dimension of your character and furthers the journey of self-discovery. Are you forcing her into increasingly difficult situations? Does each action feel sufficiently distinct and revealing? It’s all about momentum here.

Falling Action

The danger here is predictability. As Tolstoy so famously wrote, “All happy families are alike.” In other words, no one wants to read about them. Although readers want to bask in the satisfaction of a gratifying, carefully thought-out ending, they don’t really want to linger here too long. Once your characters have slain their demons, we don’t need to see them sitting around patting themselves on the back for another hundred pages. As a general rule, less is more at this stage in the game. Without the narrative tension of the earlier part of the story to propel your reader forward, it’s time to make a graceful exit.

Best of luck to all you NaNoWriMo-ers! The beauty of a first draft is that you don’t have to have every last detail figured out. Experiment, write, delete, pivot, flex your creative muscles. And enjoy the journey.