6 plot development questions to build your story

6 plot development questions to build your story

Plot is a challenging element of storytelling. Writers often ask us ‘How do I develop what I have written further?’ Here are 6 plot development questions to come up with new plot points:

1. Ask ‘what if…’

Readers on the Now Novel blog often ask us plot development questions, such as:

  • I have a beginning and ending but how do I write what comes between?
  • I feel like my story’s covered what I wanted to cover, but how can I make my book longer?
  • Do you have advice for how to come up with the next event in my story and how it will connect to the previous one?

Asking ‘what if…’ is useful for the second two plot challenges above.

Say, for example, you need to expand your story so far. There’s a scene where characters narrowly escape a conflict with an antagonist.

You could rewrite the confrontation, and ask:

  • What if one member of my character’s group is caught and left behind?
  • What if a new, unknown person arrives mid-confrontation?

Introducing a new complication, hurdle or character is one way to complicate your current plot and make your characters’ journeys more involved.

Make sure any new introduction, be it a character or obstacle, still:

  • Makes sense given the story so far: A story where every character is a human, for example, might seem as though it’s going off the rails when elves and fairies start appearing with no explanation in Chapter 25
  • Has a purpose connecting to your story’s unknowns: For example, if a character is captured in a fight scene, what can this new situation reveal further in relation to the main story arc?
Plot development questions - quote by Ursula Le Guin | Now Novel

2. Ask what are best-case scenarios

Stories’ plots veer between best-case scenarios (the best thing that could happen) and worst-case scenarios. [This is why finding best- and worst-case scenarios is a key part of Now Novel’s story outlining dashboard.]

Take, for example, the opening situation of the story of Cinderella. She’s stuck with a cruel stepmother who treats her like a servant, and equally cruel stepsisters.

Best-case scenario: Cinderella escapes her situation for a kinder life.

Worst-case scenario: Cinderella remains trapped in an abusive situation.

Brainstorming a best-case scenario for a character’s current situation is useful for plot development.

Take, for example, a character Susan, a teacher, who at the start of a story is struggling to shift her classes online during quarantine.

The best-case scenario could be:

  • Susan overcomes technological challenges and her experience revitalizes her approach to teaching
  • Susan finds it easy teaching online and ends up developing a groundbreaking online teaching platform in collaboration with her best friend, a programmer, becoming a successful educational technology entrepreneur

Brainstorming best-case scenarios is useful for plot development because it helps you understand the scope of your character’s situation.

Knowing what the best possible outcome could be will also help you come up with ideas for what’s standing in your character’s way:

3. Ask what the worst-case scenario is

The opposite of Susan’s transformation from stressed teacher to digital business leader is the worst-case scenario.

For example:

  • Susan’s unable to learn how to use technology, being so accustomed to face-to-face lessons and having barely every worked with computers
  • Susan works with disadvantaged learners who don’t have access to the equipment for her to teach them online and her class enrollments decrease, putting her out of work

Brainstorming worst-case scenarios for your characters is useful because it helps you to imagine what is at stake. For Susan, it could be:

  • Livelihood, her income
  • The satisfaction she gets from helping underprivileged kids overcome obstacles

Having an idea of the worst-case scenario in your character’s present situation also helps to inspire events – plot points – that prevent the worst from coming to pass. For example:

  • Realizing the difference between her kids’ access to equipment, Susan organizes a donor drive that ensures all her kids have the materials they need to keep learning (the worst-case scenario due to inequalities between learners is avoided)
  • The community itself gathers around learners to support them and scarce resources are shared between neighboring families

Both the above plot points preventing the worst-case scenario could each lead to new character introductions and situations further developing the story.

Infographic - plot development questions | Now Novel

4. Question characters’ desires

Interviewing your characters as though they are real people is a powerful tool for developing plot.

Try writing a questionnaire for each character. Ask questions such as:

  • What do you want more than anything right now?
  • What do you hope will happen this year or within the next few years?

Desire is a powerful plot driver.

What characters want (or fear) explains why they make certain choices.

Susan the caring teacher might want to purchase one of her students the equipment they need.

The student, however, might want a holiday from class. Their parents might want to find the solution themselves, resenting Susan’s interfering or assumptions about their situation. The school might want teachers to not come up with their own solutions, preferring thy follow its own protocol.

Once we begin to extend questions about desires to various characters, we begin to see how desires overlap, compete, oppose and interact in often exciting and unexpected ways. This chorus of desire propels the story’s momentum.

5. Query characters’ motivations

Motivation is a key component of plot development.

‘What if’ helps us develop plot points around possible developments. Motivations help us develop plot points around likely developments.

For example, imagine that one of Susan’s student’s parents consistently thwarts her attempt to teach their kid online.

By asking ‘what’s their motivation?’ we could come up with further plot revelations. For example:

  • The parents are too busy or stressed to help their kid adapt to a changed learning environment
  • The parents struggle with technology themselves and are embarrassed to admit this

Knowing what motivates your characters’ behaviour will help you come up with further scenes. For example, a scene where Susan realizes the way pride or other emotions are factoring into her relationships with students’ parents. Before, she had little input from parents. Now she has to navigate double, or even triangular dynamics (interactions with her students plus one or both parents).

Each character’s independent motivations, fears and frustrations is an element that could add surprise, conflict, or an uplifting turn to Susan’s present situation.

6. Ask how setting changes affect plot

The two elements of setting in stories – place and time – have their own effects on plot development.

For example, perhaps Susan suddenly requires lots more preparation time for her lessons due to their being more content-focused than teaching-focused.

This in turn reduces her personal time and her home relationships become more stressed and tense.

Asking questions about your setting can help you to come up with further plot developments. For example:

  • How does the story’s setting change over the course of the story? (For example, Susan’s home becomes more stressful, or not having to commute gives her more time to relax and discover what’s going on in her own family’s lives)

Understanding the challenges, advantages and other factors settings supply in characters’ lives helps us come up with new plot points tied to these changes.

Need feedback on plot development over the course of your story? Get an obligation-free quote for a professional manuscript evaluation.

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