Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Plot Points

This seems obvious, embarrassing even to mention, but you need to know the purpose of each scene or chapter or passage before you write it.  To make each part of a story do its job well, to best effect, you need to be very clear what the job’s supposed to accomplish.  Is the scene a set-up (what’s ‘Rosebud’?) building toward an eventual pay-off?  Is the scene or chapter a reveal or pay-off (‘Rosebud’ is a sled)?

Is the scene or passage acting as a lull in the story, slowing the pace so that subsequent pay-offs generate a stronger reaction – think of the scene where ‘Lt. Ripley’ prepares for bed, the moment before we find the Alien is also in the escape pod.

Also, ask yourself and be very clear about what earlier questions the current scene will answer.  And what new, larger questions will this scene raise.

Yes, all of this seems obvious, but in most workshops if a story or chapter doesn’t work well – it tends to drag or lose energy and interest – the failure is because the writer didn’t decide the plot point.  Instead, the writer just… wrote, hoping a plot point would reveal itself.  Usually, forgetting all the earlier set-ups and unresolved details leading to this part of the story.

No, you don’t have to know every plot point before you begin writing, but you should know the current point and focus on making it work.  Again, here’s the stripper analogy:  The goal isn’t to get naked as fast as you can.  The point is to make every small gesture fulfilling.  Removing the gloves.  The dress.  The garter belt.  Don’t annoy your reader by grinding away, uncertain about what garment to drop next. 

Will the next chapter or scene be a flash-back?  A flash-forward?  How will that support the chapter which follows? 

Is the scene a ‘gripper scene’ intended to seize the reader’s attention?  Will it be a ‘reversal’ where power shifts completely from the stronger character to the weaker?

If you’re unsure, ask your ideal reader or fellow workshop writers what’s missing for them in the story.  Often, readers will point out a single, important aspect of your character you’ve been forgetting to depict.  Or, readers will recall an earlier set-up you can resolve.  Then, you can determine what action the characters will take to create more tension.

Once you’ve decided the purpose of a scene – make that happen.  If you hate first drafts this will be your salvation.  You can write that first terrible draft in three quick pages, completing the plot point, and feel confident that it works well enough to carry the reader to the next plot point.  Beyond that you can polish and expand the chapter without pressure.  Regardless of the form – novel or short story – don’t waste time.  Decide the next plot point, then make it happen.  With each scene or paragraph, ask yourself what it’s supposed to accomplish.

For homework, consider that the best stories are not the ones that stop the audience in its tracks and leave it stunned.  More often the best stories excite the reader or viewer, evoking a storm of personal anecdotes with everyone talking at once, thrilled to discover a new connection between themselves and the larger world.  In that way, a good story recognizes something in the world and gives people permission to explore it.  Usually the story also gives the topic a shared language and supporting metaphors that allow people to discuss it.  We can’t acknowledge what we have no words for.

With that in mind, a huge aspect of telling good stories is listening and recognizing themes which seem unresolved for people.  A writer’s job is to express what other people can’t.

For example, today, a friend mentioned a secret passionate resentment of vegans.  After I didn’t condemn his admission, he developed it aloud, telling personal anecdotes that proved his point.  Quoting medical information.  Saying how Hitler was a vegan.  Eventually speculating about absurd situations – a carnivore entering the Vegan Olympics, secretly eating meat and kicking ass in all the events.  Such a ringer entering vegan bodybuilding and martial arts competitions.  Or, spoiling the Vegan Tour de France.

The moment he stopped talking, someone else expressed the same hidden irritation.  Then a third person started carping about vegans.  As a storyteller, you’ll recognize that this isn’t about vegans as much as it’s about a shared, unexpressed passion.  By collecting the best ideas presented by people, this is an opportunity to make something to which a larger audience will instantly connect.

Again, a story that evokes stories is a good story.

That’s another reason why I don’t resist changes as my books become films.  The highest form of flattery is NOT imitation, it’s seeing your work become a catalyst for other people to express their ideas.  With something as difficult to make as a film – to finance and shoot and distribute – unless the actors and director find their own passionate attachment to the story, they’ll never complete the process.

As homework, listen for statements or jokes or observations that excite people and prompt them to talk.  Listen for something unique, beyond the politics of the moment, some unresolved and generally unexpressed idea that will last over a long period of time.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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