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How to Write Part 4: Plot Threads

Updated: Jan 26

Defined simply by Webster as “the plan or main story,” we will discuss today, plots and subplots. First let’s retread some ground that we have already walked. We started from ideas about a world that can be as similar to or as different from the world we live in as we want. We have scenes. These are things we know we want to have happen. We have characters, the people who drive the scenes, or perhaps have the scenes happen to them.

These are the most basic building blocks of a story. We need them in some real sense to begin to build plot. There are some people who may conceive of the plot first, and then decide who it happens to and the character which would fill it. As we said when this started there are as many valid ways to write as there are writers. I find it a more foolproof, perhaps less inventive way, (that’s a little harsh) to go in this order.  

Here is why: There is a formula you can now follow to build main plots and secondary plots from what you already have, even if you didn’t already have a story in mind.

Create two lists of all the characters you already have. Something you can draw arrows between them or make directional references. I’ll wait…

For each of these you are going to create a line from character A to character B, C, D, etc. In each case you are going to answer all of the following questions. Assume for the time being at some point in the story each of them will encounter one another, though this doesn’t have to be the case in draft. In other words, work to leave no section blank.

1)      Character A wants to achieve goal ABC.

2)      Character A feels/would feel XYZ about B, because ABC.

3)      Event/Scene XYZ could happen between character A and B.

4)      Event/Scene XYZ could be perpetrated on character A by B.

5)      Character A would want to stop character B from achieving XYZ?

This is not a short exercise. This is developing the relationship web of your story. Every one of these single strands is a miniature plot. Let’s take one example in the same hypothetical world with levitation we have been working in.

Plot threads

Remember we are filling a version of “Character A feels/would feel XYZ about B because ABC.”

-          The crown princess wants to feel empowered.

-          The crown prince of Eastern Vale does not like the crown princess of Highwinds, because he is being forced to marry the crown princess who does not have the ability to levitate.  

-          The princess argues with her mother about gaining the ability to levitate in her generation, even though her mother wants it to come gradually as it always has through breeding and eventually her grandchildren, not new scientific programs to tamper with already living people.

-          The princess drugs her mother, to escape one night into the dark to seek out the help of a shady back-alley virus dealer. He gives her a virus which will change her DNA to allow her to levitate after all. (Her mother is accidently sent into a coma from this drugging?)

-          The princess’s father has assigned the royal guard to prevent her from sneaking out. (And perhaps does not know this guard has a terrible infatuation with her?)


This is now a basic plot outline. This is the broad brushstroke of a story’s beginning. What fell out of this is subplots. Her mother is now ill, and needs help. There is a secondary love interest in the captain of the guard who wants to keep the princess safe while obeying her father. The prince may develop feelings rightly or wrongly once he sees she can levitate too. She may lose the ability later, after the first resolution.

Once you build these story lines between each character, you have many such stories you can pursue. You will soon have to pick which one of them is most interesting to you, and which you think will be most interesting to you readers. Don’t worry if they are self-contradictory. Just like your ideas could be contradicting, so too your science could be contradicting and your plots. You don’t have to make any final decisions. That comes soon, but not yet.

This is a very long process, and involves a lot of creative effort. Don’t short change this step even if it does take you weeks. Don’t worry that this might generate whole new scenes or whole new events and ideas you want to see exist in the world. The process is supposed to be iterative.

Go get web building your character interactions, it’s the next step toward writing.

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