[marginalia] you’ll never guess what happens next : : colette sartor

To some writers–including me–plot can seem like the dirtiest, most despicable of four letter words. Writers of this ilk have been known to run screaming from a room when we hear the word. “Make something happen?” we call, quaking in our hiding spots. “Why would we do that? Stories come from character, not plot. Stories should be about someone, not something.”

This, I’ve learned, is a huge, smelly load of horse shit.

Plot is important. Stories need plots. Every story. Every. Single. One.

What is plot?
The clearest definition of plot I’ve found comes from Bret Anthony Johnston. In Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Bret says, “Plot is a succession of linked events that escalate in tension until they reach a point of resolution.” (p. 59) Each event must be predicated on the other, he cautions, linked by “causality and logic rather than coincidence and anecdote.” (p. 59)

And how do you link events to create a plausible plot? How do you figure out what happens next? Through character, of course. The best plot arises out of character.

Character = Plot. Plot = Character.

Linking Character and Plot
The logic behind that formula makes sense, but it also leads me right back to why plot can be a four letter word. What does Character = Plot actually mean in practical terms? How do I use characters to create causality in plot? How do I figure out what my characters–my lovely, flawed, difficult, persnickety characters–will do next? How do I determine whether my main character will wake up early one morning to prune the begonias before poisoning her husband’s eggs or whether she’ll decide to poison his girlfriend instead? And how do I convince my reader that every action my main character takes is something she’d actually do rather than something I’m making her do in order to advance the plot?

The key, I’ve discovered, is to ask myself whether my main character, given who she is and what she most desperately wants, would actually react this particular way given this particular conflict I’ve thrown at her. A seemingly mousey, bookish woman who’s never said boo to a ghost might indeed fetch the rat poison if the husband she’s struggled to remain faithful to over the course of a longstanding, difficult marriage decides to boink a neighbor or three. Whereas a firebrand of a woman who picks fights in the supermarket might drop to her knees, crying, and beg the unfaithful hubby to stay and behave himself. It’s all about how deeply you imagine your characters. If you create a character with desperate yearnings and desires and then put massive obstacles in her path, she’s bound to react in ways that feel motivated and real. Put your character in a situation that challenges every one of her desires, and events will quickly unspool, each one causally connected to the other.

So really the formula for plot goes like this:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Plot.


Spend a few minutes examining the picture below and making a list of conflicts that could lead these people to this place, whatever that place might be (a cannon in a Civil War battle recreation? A ledge jutting out of a castle?)

Picture credit: We Will Become Silhouettes by Joey Gannon, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Unmodified

Next, for each conflict, spend a few minutes quickly assigning roles to the different people and identifying which one is the main character. Is this a political prisoner leading her compatriots on an escape attempt? A child fearfully following her carefree family along a high ledge? A college student playing some crazy game of Truth or Dare to prove himself to one of the girls in the group?

Now, pick a conflict and set of characters from the list. Sketch out personalities for all five (or get rid of a few characters, to make life easier). Imagine backstories and relationships between them. Then focus on your main character and the secret desire, the passion, that drives him or her.

Finally, set a timer for 20 minutes and write a scene describing–you guessed it–what happens next.


Colette Sartor
’s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Slice Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, The Good Men Project, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She has taught writing for over a decade and currently teach at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her at colettesartor.com and on Twitter.

This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.

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