Question from the E-mail: What advice do you have about plots?
Answer: The Old Triple-O Outline technique I used to teach for Writer's Digest is still my favorite, with a little twist or two. Below is the handout I used in my classes.
Triple O Plot Outline
Every story is about someone who wants something and whether they get it or not.
Any story plot can easily be broken down into three parts: Objective; Obstacles; Outcome, sometimes referred to as the Triple-O Outline. There are hardly any new plots, so don’t be discouraged if “it’s been done.” The challenge, for any writer, is to make the characters so fresh and interesting that the reader forgets they have seen the plot before.
Plots for short stories should be short. If too much action is incorporated, the story will grow longer and longer and may become unwieldy. If too many obstacles occur, the reader could grow impatient and give up.
Plots for novels should have a reason for everything. Be careful not to confuse “back story” (information needed to explain the characters personality and problems to the readers), with current plot action.
Whatever has happened before the real action begins is “back story”. Be careful not to confuse explanatory action, with a plot turning point. A plot turning point is always when something CHANGES.
To use a classic example, in the story Cinderella her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage are all “back story”. The mean way the rest of the family treats Cindy is explanatory action used to set up the objective. Because the Objective for Cinderella, is that she wants to go to the ball. Until Cinderella decides she wants to go to the ball nothing has really happened, everything is going on as usual. Remember, plot always happens when something changes. When the character knows what he or she wants, that is the objective and the objective is always the beginning of the story, the beginning of the plot. Now the character has a problem to solve – how to get what s/he wants. Once there is a problem statement, it’s time to get on with the story.
If there is no problem, nothing is happening, and there is no story. Stories are about overcoming something. If there is no “overcoming” then there is no satisfaction to the reader at the end.
Here are The Triple-Os
Objective: The objective (some call it object, but I like objective better) is what the character wants. Once your character knows what s/he wants, s/he has an objective. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Her sisters are going and she darned well wants to go, too!
Obstacles: Whatever stands in the character’s way of getting what s/he wants are plot obstacles. There's an old writer's axiom called the "rule of three" that tells us not to include more than three things in any one sentence. For hundreds of years three has been a magic number in our culture. Genies grant three wishes, Cinderella had two ugly sisters, there are usually three turning points or complications in a story plot, with the last one resulting in the crisis/bleak moment (some people call it the “black moment” and my friend Carla Neggers calls it the “big gloom”), just before the resolution. So it is unwise to plan more than three obstacles in any plot.
Cinderella’s obstacles are not the ugly step-sisters, the way she is treated by her mean and jealous step-mother, or her father’s inability to see through his new wife. These are her obstacles:
1. She has nothing to wear.
2. She has no way to get there.
3. She has a fairy-godmother (who solves the first two), BUT she must be home by midnight or the magic wears off!
As with most story plots, obstacles one and two are overcome, but obstacle three leads to what I like to call the bleak moment. In every story there is (or should be) that moment when it looks as if all is lost. For Cinderella, that moment happens when she’s waltzing in the Prince’s arms and the clock strikes 12. She runs, for she knows that when the clock finishes striking, she will be standing there in rags. For Cindy, the party is over and she’ll never see the prince again. (Bleak moment)
Outcome: The outcome is simply how your story ends. Every story has an outcome. Some are happy, some sad, but whatever the outcome the main character or his or her circumstances should change because of it. In our sample story, the Prince finds the slipper. Truly smitten, he searches for Cindy until he finds her. And the Outcome, of course, is they marry and live happily ever after.
Not every story has a happy ending, of course, but there must be a resolution and the story will be better received if that resolution is satisfactory to the reader. Take the movie version of Titanic. (Another Cinderella, story plot.) Unlike Cindy, Rose is rich, but she is also a victim of her family and of her abusive fiance. Here, quoted from the movie, is Rose’s problem statement:
"I saw my whole life as if I'd already lived it...an endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches...always the same narrow people, the same mindless chatter. I felt like I was standing at a great precipice, with no one to pull me back, no one who cared...or even noticed."-- Rose DeWitt Bukater
Rose’s Objective: Is to escape the life she lives and a loveless marriage so that she can find freedom.
1. Her family and fiancé punish her when she doesn’t conform to their expectations.
2. Depression that leads her to consider suicide.
3. The ship’s sinking and Jack’s death (bleak moment)
Rose’s Outcome: Though Jack dies, Rose is rescued.
Rose is Cindy in reverse. She’s a girl who has everything, money, position, and a millionaire fiancé. Yet Rose is severely depressed and feels confined by her life. Then she meets Jack, a free spirit.
Instead of going to the palace ball, they dance with the peasants in steerage. Even though Jack dies when the ship sinks, Rose goes on to dump her fiancé, and to live out all the dreams she and Jack had planned together.
This is evidenced by her photo collection, Rose as a pilot, on a roller-coaster, riding a horse, and treading the boards as an actress. Not a happy ending to the romance, because Rose has escaped from the narrow-minded people and her confined life, to find a fulfillment for herself.
Even though the hero dies, Titanic is still a romance. The ending,
while sad, resolves the issues, and is satisfying.