Plotting adventures (part four)

23 10 2009

If I could sum up structuring your plot in four steps, here is what they would be

Start with your main NPC

For some people, the idea for the adventure is all about a particular place, or perhaps an event – or even an ideal. When it comes to constructing a plot, you should start with your main NPC.

This character should be in conflict with someone or something (or both).

The end game

Most adventure writers now consider how the characters will overcome the NPC. This is typically how the adventure will end.

The road ahead

Next you should consider how soon the characters will be aware of the problem, how complex the journey to overcoming the issue will be and what clues you will plant to ensure that the resolution is credible.

Two plots

A lot of successful stories have two plots. This is not to be confused with a single plot that has two strands that meet up en route. That is still a single plot. A second plot is typically revealed after the first plot has been concluded and can, in fact, be considered the main plot.

Consider Luke in Episode IV. For most of the story the plot was to return R2D2 to the princess. Only when that was done was the true plot revealed – to destroy the Death Star.

Despite understanding the reasons for an outline, many adventure writers fail to understand how to create one

Why should you outline?

I appreciate that some writers can pen an adventure organically. Great for them. Most mere mortals need some help. Even if your adventure deviates from an original outline (mine always do) you have given yourself a framework to hang your story on. It allows you a rough route-map that you can keep adding detail to until you have a fully formed story.

Back to the main NPC

If you’ve never outlined before, the best place to start is with the main NPC. Write a paragraph explaining the overall story from their perspective.

Adding and adding

My advice is that you build up from your one paragraph to a full outline by a number of steps – rather than one jump.

Beginning, middle and end

Your outline can start with as few as three steps, but you may need a few more to convey all the key steps. Here I stick to what actually happens and what the plot point is about.

So, for example, the king dying is what happens. The prince’s life being thrown into turmoil is what we actually want to write about.

It’s a kind of cause and effect situation.


Next I develop the key steps into a series of encounters. I consider what needs to happen along the way, and add the key scenes in.

Final plot

Now you can develop each encounter into as many ‘scenes’ as necessary. You should detail what is going to happen in each scene and consider such things as:

  • Where is the scene taking place?
  • Who is present?
  • When is it taking place?
  • What is the setting for the scene?
  • What to do if the story refuses to follow the outline?

This last point is a common reason that writers don’t want to write an outline in the first place. Many are worried that it will force the adventure down a path that will be at odds with what flows organically when it is actually being written.

Some just use it as an excuse not to outline – as it seems like hard work. Take it from me – writing an outline will actually help the organic process. As you continue to flesh out your plot, inconsistencies will become more apparent.

Your brain will ask, ‘but why would he go there?’ long before you hit that spot when writing. Better still, you can spot these problems better when looking down holistically rather than when you are in the flow of writing.

Having said all of that, there will be times when the story goes off in a direction that your outline didn’t account for. What should you do? Go with the flow is my response. Change the outline to reflect where your writing is taking you. But make sure you make the changes to the outline. That way, you can be sure you smooth out all of the logical problems that ensure you end up where you need to be in the end.

One of the main reasons adventure writers fail to turn an idea into a story is that they don’t know how to manage the intermediate step – how to plot

Inorganic development

Most writers will tell you that the hard part is coming up with the idea. If you have the idea, turning this into a plot and then a story ought to be a piece of cake. Except that isn’t always the case. Some people are great with ideas but can’t translate that into the cake. If that’s you, then this section will help because, like any cake, it can be made with a basic recipe.

The recipe

Take your idea and turn it into a one- sentence (or at most two) summary of the story. If you can’t, the idea isn’t yet fully formulated in your mind and I would review the idea until you can turn it into a one-liner.

Now expand your one-liner into a paragraph. Cover the truly key points in the story. Now you have a plot. You now have a simple cake.

How to add the icing to the cake

Give half a dozen cooks the same recipe and the likelihood is they’ll come up with six different tasting cakes. There is an art to following even simple recipes. Regardless of that, the cake isn’t complete until you’ve given it some flavour, perhaps some icing or even a cherry on the top. This is where the writers’ art comes in. An outline can only do so much. Without decent characters, puzzles, setting etc. you will have a very boring cake.

Next time, I’ll take about MICE…




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