When I’m assessing a manuscript, there’s a long list of things I look for. At the top of the list is plot, for one very good reason. Narrative, as Peter Brooks has pointed out, is a form of problem-solving that works by illustration rather than by explication. Plot—one thing happening in response to another thing that happened—is the tool by which narrative shows problems being solved.
So if you don’t have a plot, or if your plot isn’t working as well as it could…you’ve got a problem*.
The three things I look for when assessing a manuscript to see if it has a plot and how well that plot is working are: structure, turning points, and ending.
The most common structure for narratives in English literature—though certainly not the only one—is the three-act structure derived from stage and, more recently, film and TV**, in which Act I is the set-up, Act 2 is the confrontation, and Act 3 is the resolution. When you sit down to work out what’s going on with your plot, it can be helpful to map it out in a linear format, no matter how you actually organise it in your book, and check to make sure that you actually have all three elements.
Does your narrative introduce the situation, the characters, their problems, needs and plans? If your protagonist and secondary characters don’t have problems driving their choices, you don’t have a story.
Is there an extended section in which your protagonist is genuinely challenged by obstacles that prevent them from getting what they need or achieving what they want? Are their challenges too easily overcome, or so overwhelming that the protagonist just stops and wallows until they’re rescued? Does the story divert onto something else altogether? It’s not a confrontation if the protagonist doesn’t actually confront their problems, one way or another.
And does the narrative actually conclude? Is the problem established in the set-up phase resolved in some way? Or does the story just stop? A short story can get away with stopping; a novel, which has far more going on, needs to wrap things up more securely.
It’s not enough just to have three acts to your story, though. How does your protagonist get from Act I to Act II? What takes them from enduring their problems to confronting them?
The mechanism for moving your characters from one act to the next is called a ‘plot point’ or ‘turning point’: it’s a thing that happens, often external to your protagonist, that shifts the ground under them and forces them to take action. It could be a murder, a theft, a letter bringing bad—or good—news, a conversation, a sick child, a broken dishwasher…anything at all that shakes things up and makes your protagonist do something.
Most stories have at least two plot points—one that transitions the protagonist from Act I to Act II, and one that takes them from Act II to Act III. When you map out your plot, look for these turning points. Do you have at least two? Are they strong enough to have the effect you want? Is your protagonist’s reaction to them believable, or at least relatable? Does a plot point pass by without the narrative turning at all? A narrative that doesn’t ‘turn’ isn’t really a narrative; it’s just a sequence of events.
Once you’ve figured out your turning points and what effect they have on your narrative, you also need to look at where they take you: the end of the story.
Is your protagonist’s problem solved? Do they have what they needed at the start of the story? Have they achieved their desires? It might seem like the answer to all of these questions should be yes, and for some stories it absolutely can be. But it can be just as effective to complicate the resolution. Can your turning points lead your protagonist to an unexpected solution to their problem? Can the priblem remain partially unresolved, but in a way the protagonist can accept? Can they get what they need, but not what they wanted back at the start of all this? Can they end up somewhere that’s actually better than what they were aiming for—or at least, better for them? The wrap-up is often more satisfying if it’s slightly unexpected in a way that feels right.
But plot is only one element of a narrative, and one thing that manuscript assessors look at when they analyse a narrative. Next week, I’ll look at the element that makes plot come alive: character.
*Which is not to say that there are no books without plots—there are plenty—but they’re out of fashion nowadays and hard to get into print outside of the litfic zone.
**Though TV is more likely to use a four- or even vaguely Shakespearean five-act structure these days, thanks to advertising…
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1984.