Contrary to a rather popular belief, plots are not simply what happens in a story. Confused? Think of reality TV. That has no plot – stuff happens for the set time period, then the show finishes. So while stuff happening is necessary to plot, it’s not sufficient. I’m not claiming any guru-ness here, so if anyone can offer more or better information than I’ve got, feel free to speak up.
At any rate, I’ve identified these major components to plot: People, places, motives, actions, and pace. I consider them essentials because if you take any one of them away, you don’t have a plot any more. What’s more, none of them can be switched out for a different set without significantly changing the plot.
Here’s the way I look at it. Your people are your characters, major or minor, good, evil or somewhere in between. If by some chance you have no characters, you also have no plot unless you anthropomorphized part of the scenery, in which case it is a character. If you genuinely don’t have any characters, you’re writing for a suckitudinous fiction prize and don’t need a plot. For the vast majority of the rest of us, there are people, whether they’re human-shaped, dog-shaped, alien-shaped, or something even stranger.
As for place, well, the floating voices in undefined space effect is just so passe these days, and besides, as I mentioned a few weeks back, place has a profound impact on character. It also, not coincidentally, has a big effect on actions and pace. Harry Potter would not be the same story if it was set anywhere other than a magical version of the quintessential English boarding school. None of Pterry’s Discworld novels would work anywhere but the Disc. And so forth. Without a sense of place, a story won’t feel grounded, making it weaker – one of the reasons I spent hours researching Wallachia, Bulgaria and Turkey to get the feel of place for Impaler as close to right as I could without walking the whole thing myself (not that I’d mind doing that, but there’s little issue with budget, namely I haven’t got one).
Motives are what drive your plot. If no-one wants anything, there’s no reason to do anything so there’s no plot. Even talent shows have a plot of sorts: everyone there wants to win, and only one of them can. Your main characters need to want something enough to turn their own worlds inside out in order to get it. Along the way, they’ll have more immediate but less major needs and desires: which is where we as authors get to make their lives miserable by denying them their needs and making them chase that big motive while half-dead, or in extreme cases all-dead and too stubborn to let go.
Actions rise from character, motive and place – the person, motive and place determine the best action (or what looks like it – part of our job as authors is to make sure the action that looks best is going to turn around and bite the person). After all, if you desperately want to be a cross-country skiing champion, what you do to become one is going to be totally different if you live in Switzerland than if you live in Jamaica. It will be a lot easier from Switzerland than from Jamaica, too, and unless you’re aiming for suckitudinous infamy, a more difficult big motive leads to more actions and riskier actions – which makes the story more interesting. The higher the stakes, the better the plot, as a rule. Playing dice with the Devil for a few pennies isn’t nearly as interesting as playing for your soul (and losing. Then you’ve got to defeat the Devil on his home turf. See what I mean?).
Pace is the last piece of the plot puzzle. The simplest way to look at pace is how fast things happen, but it’s more than that – pace measures how fast things feel. As a general rule, the more intense the emotions around a sequence of events, the faster it will feel, even if almost nothing happens. I don’t recommend loading seven hundred pages with intense emotion while advancing an epic plot all of three days and ten miles, though. As will all things, moderation is good. Pace should not stay the same through a book – there’s a natural rhythm a story follows that has several peaks and quite a few slower sections that let readers and characters catch their breath. The early L. K. Hamilton books are brilliant examples of pacing – she has it down almost to the page: to the extent that you could look at how much book was left and figure you had maybe a chapter before all hell broke loose (given the plot, often literally).
Of course, you can’t deal with all of these in isolation: they work together and if done well enhance each other. When they’re done very well, you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it. In my case, I don’t notice anything until the book’s been finished, it’s several hours later, I’ve got starving cats, I haven’t eaten and it’s way past when I should have been in bed. I may be a tad on the extreme side.
So that’s the quickie overview of plot, the super-simple version. Typically, most writers will be good at one or two of the elements and weaker with the others – it really does help to identify which aspects of plotting you need to improve and get help from someone who’s good at it. It helps even more if the person who mentors you had to work at it themselves: when something comes easy it’s a lot harder to teach because the nuts and bolts are buried in the subconscious and it will “just happen”.