Your plot is useless without this

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Image by Francisco Osorio

Image by Francisco Osorio

A hundred strangers cling to one another as their runaway train thunders toward a dead end.

Across town, the only woman you’ve ever loved is strapped to a time bomb.

Save her, keep your heart from breaking. But a thousand other hearts get broken instead.

“My husband!” a woman screams as she runs up beside you, clutching a small boy to her chest. “My husband is on that train!”

Save the train, do the right thing, the city will throw you a parade. But all you’ll see through the floats and confetti will be the grief-ridden faces of your true love’s family and the knowledge that you’ll never see her again.

You inhale the deep breath you’ll need for the flight across town.

You’re frozen in mid-takeoff. You can’t take your eyes off the boy in the woman’s arms. He’s the age you were when your father was killed. Young, but you can see in his face he knows what’s happening. Because you felt the same.

Oh, snap. You curse and hammer the keyboard. You threw the little boy in to milk the drama, not to change your hero’s mind—but now you see there’s no turning back. This is going to mean rewrites.

For all the dramatic events that happen around your hero, there are equally dramatic events happening inside him. Events that move him to action. If you don’t keep track of what’s going on inside his head, you won’t be able to predict how he’ll react to any given situation, and by the time you realize it, you might be in a terrible plot bind.

Keep that from happening by mapping your hero’s emotional journey along with the plot. Here are a few guidelines to help.

Outline your hero’s history.

Three forces influence your hero’s decisions: logic, emotions, and morals. What makes sense? What feels best? What’s right? How each of this forces affects him is first determined by his past. So start by outlining his history with questions like:

  • What’s the most traumatic thing he’s ever experienced?
  • What’s the safest he’s ever felt and why?
  • What’s the worst sin he’s ever committed?
  • Which two people have the biggest positive and negative influence on him?
  • What does he want most?
  • (Here’s more help getting to know him)

Use his history to determine how he will react to each major plot point.

The severity of each situation relative to his personal demons will determine his decision. And every decision he makes will affect future events, which, in turn, affect him right back. As the story progresses and the stakes are raised, his decision process will change. Emotional turmoil clouds his moral judgment. Righteous anger clouds his logical judgment. It’s a tumbling system of cause and effect, playing on your hero’s weaknesses and leading to the climax.

Equip him for the ultimate decision.

At the climax, your hero must make one final decision between right and wrong. The forces influencing him are now one big mess of everything that’s happened so far. Of longing and pain and fear.

Make sure that mess includes the motivation for him to make the decision he is supposed to make. If you want him save the people on the train, kill off his father; plant the boy. But if you want him save the girl, you’d better plant something early on that will undermine his empathy for the boy and push him in a different direction.

And if you want him to find a clever way to save everyone (like they do in all the movies), you’d better give him a memory that inspires the answer.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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  1. Great point! There has to be a rational explanation why the hero or heroine acted they way they did. Or you are so right, major story renovation! And, a plot map and character chart keep the writer on track…

  2. Thought exercise for the day. What happens when the thing your protagonist wants most is something he or she knows can never be obtained/attained/found. For instance, something that is lost forever.

    • I suppose he would move on to seek whatever he thought would alleviate the pain of his loss/lack? So anything from revenge, to making others feel his pain, to trying to make sure others don’t have to feel his pain, to drowning his sorrows in copious amounts of malted milk.

      • That malted milk addiction is a life-destroyer…

        I’m playing with this very question right now, and it’s interesting. One of my characters was really driven, but I couldn’t figure out what her goal was. There didn’t seem to be anything she really wanted. Revenge wasn’t a factor, and helping others seemed to be her excuse more than her motivation. Finally it clicked that she’s afraid to stop because if she does, she has to face her loss. Poor traumatized characters… what did they ever do to deserve being written about. 😉

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