A harsh truth today from fiction-land:
Readers don’t care about your plot. They care about how your plot affects your characters.
You can have as many betrayals, breakups, fights, CIA conspiracies, evil war lords, double-crossings, sudden bouts of amnesia, comas, and flaming meteors racing directly toward Manhattan as you want.
But if readers don’t understand how those events are going to affect (1) a character they care about who (2) is trying to achieve a particular goal which (3) will be impacted, either positively or negatively, by the consequences of said event… then you may as well be shooting off firecrackers in an empty gymnasium.
Here’s an example of a meaningless plot point:
A school burns down. Oh my god, the flames! The carnage! The dead and injured children! There are police everywhere–total chaos! And your main character is standing on the sidewalk, watching the event, and crying.
Here’s an example of a plot point that impacts your character and her goal, and thus your reader:
Mary Ann has been a middle school teacher for 25 years.
One year, she gets a new student–an unusual girl named Indigo who is obviously having troubles at home, and has a penchant for burning anything she can get her hands on.
Mary Ann becomes increasingly fond of Indigo, defending her to the administration who wants to kick the girl out of school, citing her potential to endanger the other students.
Over the course of the first quarter of the story, Mary Ann gets into a personal battle with herself over how to handle the situation–she truly feels a connection with Indigo, who reminds her of her own sister who was institutionalized for similar behavior when they were kids.
One day, Indigo gets into an altercation with another girl at school, screaming absolute insanity about how she plans to kill everyone. Burn it down! she bellows, I’ll burn this whole place down!
In the wake of this most disturbing turn, Mary Ann comes very close to siding with the administration, but ultimately–remembering her inability to save her sister from social ostracization under similar circumstances–she comes to Indigo’s defense and convinces the principal to give her one more chance. Indigo will receive weekly counseling, do community service hours, and they will re-evaluate her in two months time.
Mary Ann goes home that night feeling a tentative sense of relief. She did the right thing–didn’t she? Surely the other children weren’t in any real danger, and poor, tender, special Indigo deserved the second chance that Mary Ann’s sister never got. If Mary Ann didn’t come to her defense, who would? She dozes off to sleep and, although she is troubled by strange dreams, wakes up feeling even more confident about her decision.
Half way through her drive to school the next morning, she hears an announcement on the radio. There is a fire at the school. She rushes there, speeding wildly and running through red lights. But when she arrives, it’s too late.
Oh my god, the flames! The carnage! The dead and injured children! There are police everywhere–total chaos! And your main character, Mary Ann, is standing on the sidewalk, watching the event, and crying.
Remember: Plot without character development is melodrama.
It’s not about the events themselves, it’s about how the events impact your characters.
Before you set something on fire, make sure your character–and thus your reader–has some stake in the outcome. The result will be higher engagement from your reader, more empathy for the main character, and an absolutely gripping plot.
Note: I’ve used a fire in this example, but as long as your character development is on point, readers can get excited about anything, no matter how small or subtle.
Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.