I know a lot of new writers have trouble weaving a story, or should I say weaving a plot? Most of us can tell a good story -- I have myself and I've read some in my critique group, but what about devising a good plot? The February 2011 issue of "Writer's Digest" had a good article about this called "Story Trumps Structure" by Steven James.
In the article, James gives us five key ingredients to a plot, very similar to the chess game analogy I wrote about in a previous posting. A look at his list tells us that a good plot is more than merely person, place, and things. It's change, what he calls "transformation." And really, how many of us are happy with a story in which the protagonist is the same person we met at the beginning of the story? How popular would Star Wars have been if Luke returned to Tattoine to farm, or Ben Hur if Judah had gone back to just being a wealthy aristocrat, or vengeful anti-Roman? I don't know about you, but I would have felt like it was a waste of my time.
Here are the five essential ingredients according to James:
1) Orientation -- What is the protagonist's life like now? Is it normal for him or is it abnormal? If the former, then we need to see the character experience upheaval and change, if the latter, then we need to see him go through upheaval, or bring the upheaval to a close and see that character settle into a normal life. I've heard that our readers should meet our protagonist in his or her natural habitat in the first chapter. In my techno-thriller, we meet Max teaching an advanced physics course, the only place he feels actualized and complete.
2) Crisis -- What is the precipitating event that thrusts our character forward? In my story, Max learns about the death of his professor and about a mystery surrounding that death.
3) Escalation -- What does the protagonist do to resolve the problem? There should be conflicts within the bigger conflict - two steps forward, one step backward. At this time, maybe your protagonist's weaknesses should come to the fore? Mine is terrified of open stairs, so I plan to work that into the story somehow -- can he overcome this fear to resolve the conflict (i.e. can he master the force or learn about the ways of Jesus) or will he return home (to Tattoine, or as a zealot) in defeat?
4) Discovery -- The climax of the story. The answer is realized, but not just the issue at hand, but the protagonist should learn something about himself or herself. Luke learned about the force and realized there was more to life than Tattoine; Ben Hur realized that peace and forgiveness was just as much an option as hate and revenge (God, I love that movie!). In my story, Max solves the murder but also learns that life is more than his science.
5) Change -- The final scene should show the transformation. Luke burning the corpse of his father and seeing Yoda, Annikan, and Obi-Wan reunited; Ben Hur telling Esther of his experience at the cross ("As he died, I could feel the sword being lifted from my hand") and is reunited with his now leprosy-free mother and sister.
So again, good advice when weaving your tale. Does your story include these essential ingredients? If not, why don't you add a pinch of escalation, or a dash of transformation?