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Simply put, a plot is the series of events that make up a fictional story or novel.

My first really big epiphany with regard to plotting happened at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, which I attended when I was finishing up college. Before that workshop, I'd been writing short stories and had sold one, but I had no clear idea of why my other stories weren't selling.

I'd taken a couple of creative writing courses in college, and the instruction there had focused largely on the quality of micro-writing (in other words, the prettiness of the prose style) and on things like dialog and theme and metaphor. All good stuff, but the fundamental mechanics of what makes a story a story were treated as something that just sort of happens.

During the week that author Joe Haldeman was teaching our Clarion class, he started talking about the five-point plot as it relates to short fiction. As he explained it (and you'll see different explanations around the Internet) this type of plot goes like so:

  1. You introduce your main character. He or she might not be likable, but he or she needs to be interesting.
  2. He or she has a problem that relates somehow to his or her character traits. This problem:
    • Means the protagonist wants something (an object, an achievement, an environmental change, a person, etc.) that he or she can't immediately get. Desire and drive are important here.
    • Needs to be revealed early on, preferably on the first page, ideally in the first paragraph.
  3. He or she tries to solve the problem ... and fails. Other complications arise due to the failure.
  4. He or she tries to solve the problem again, and fails or succeeds in a way that fits with his or her characterization and the themes of the story; for instance, if the story is a tragedy, the character will fail due to some tragic flaw in his or her personality. 
  5. In the wake of the protagonist's success or failure, he or she has experienced a meaningful change, and the story comes to a conclusion (denouement) that will be satisfying to the reader.

This, of course, is not the only way to structure the plot of a short story. But before Joe's discussion, nobody had ever showed me a story, popped the hood of the plot, and showed me how the story engine works. And having that explained was an enormous revelation! And it seemed so simple. And I finally realized why my stories weren't selling -- my prose style might have been decent enough and my characters sympathetic, but the plots needed serious overhauls. Sometimes, it was because I had a whole lot of action but no real character journey or change. Other times, I had a main character who passively allowed things to happen to him or her without having a real stake in what was going on. I got to work, and I sold a couple more stories.

Later, I got a second and equally big revelation from talking with Gary A. Braunbeck. He made me realize that good plots aren't prefabricated obstacle courses you march your characters through as though they're contestants in some game show. Your characters and their conflicts with each other have to create and drive the plot. But to fully understand the lessons Gary taught me, I first had to understand what Joe taught me. 

Since then, I've made over 100 short fiction sales in total, and I recently received the Bram Stoker Award for my short story "Magdala Amygdala". So, these were definitely lessons worth learning.