23 March 2019

But Do You Have a Plot? Bad Girl whittles Popular Fiction Bootcamp down to 10 minutes…

By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Last month, I wrote about Endings, and reader expectations for each of the main genres.  The response was positive, and some people have asked that I bring more stuff from class onto these pages.  So here are some notes from the very beginning, class 1, hour 1.

People often ask what comes first: character or plot?

Do you start with a character?  Or do you start with a plot?
This is too simplistic.

Here’s what you need for a novel:
A main character
With a problem or goal
Obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end.

PLOT is essential for all novels.  It’s not as easy as just sitting down and just starting to write 80,000 words.  Ask yourself:
What does your main character want?  Why can’t he get it?

Your character wants something.  It could be safety, money, love, revenge…

There are obstacles in the way of her getting what she wants.  THAT PROVIDES CONFLICT.

So…you need a character, with a problem or goal, and obstacles to reaching that goal.  Believable obstacles that matter.  Even in a literary novel.

There must be RISK.  Your character must stand to lose a lot, if they don’t overcome those obstacles.  In crime books, it’s usually their life.

So…you may think you have a nice story of a man and woman meeting and falling in love, and deciding to make a commitment.  Awfully nice for the man and woman, but dead boring for the reader.  Even in a romance, there must be obstacles to the man and woman getting together.  If you don’t have obstacles, you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a plot, and you don’t have a novel.

Put another way:
When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise ABCD will happen.
That’s what you need for a novel.


1. Readers must know what each character’s goals are so they can keep score.

2. Goals must be clearly defined, and they must be evident from the beginning.

3. There must be opposition, which creates the possibility of losing.
   >>this conflict makes up your plot<<
4. Will the character achieve his goal?  Readers will keep turning pages to find out.

If you don’t provide goals, readers will get bored. 
They won’t know the significance of the ‘actions’ the hero takes.

To Conclude:
Until we know what your character wants, we don’t know what the story is about.
Until we know what’s at stake, we don’t care.

Melodie Campbell writes fast-moving crime fiction that leans toward zany.  If you like capers like the Pink Panther and Oceans 11, check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com

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O'Neil De Noux said...

Good lesson. I hope some wanna be writers are out there listening. Good lesson for veteran writers as well.

janice law said...

Best of luck with your latest- Vegas should provide a lot of opportunity!

Paul D. Marks said...

All good points, Melodie. A writing course all in about a page, good stuff!

Eve Fisher said...


Melodie Campbell said...

Thank you O'Neil! I watch in shock, that first class, as students realize they really don't have a story yet. They just have a character they want to write about.

Melodie Campbell said...

Paul and Eve, thanks!
Janice - Yes, taking the Steeltown mob to Vegas was a great deal of fun. Not to mention, they have relatives there - wink.

Alison E. Bruce said...

YOu sure know how to put things in a nutshell, Mel. Is that because you're a nut?


Melodie Campbell said...

Ha! That one is worth stealing, Alison. Consider it stolen.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Melodie.

Last week, I told a workshop class on short stories to come up with a character NAME, and, when we agreed on one, tell what they would "expect" of a person with that name. Then what could be a goal or problem?

There were six people in the class, and they generated the idea for about a dozen short stories in the next five minutes from that little bit.

Character creates your plot, IF you mistreat him or her right.

Melodie Campbell said...

I've done that exercise too, Steve (with my class). I've also done another that has them start with a plot, and then decide what kind of characters they would need to people that plot to make it work. The two are so connected, it's hard to separate them - and of course, both are essential to a good story!