21. Even the most character-driven stories have a plot of some kind—a conflict. I love beautifully written “quiet” stories. (Sara Zarr’s STORY OF A GIRL comes to mind.) But even though that story was literary; even though it was character-driven; it still had a plot that came directly from who the character was and what she needed.
22. Your characters should also have a goal which is intrinsically linked to, and yet separate from, your story’s conflict. Take LYKY for example. Cammie’s goal is to try to learn whether or not she really wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps. To do this she develops a relationship with a normal boy. The conflict, however, is the many security measures that stand in her way; the fact that Josh can’t know where she really goes to school; and finally her own misgivings about leading a double life.
23. Appreciate the difference between internal and external conflict. Personally, my favorite stories have both. When characters face external struggles that mirror their internal doubts, you get great stories. (The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan are excellent examples of this.)
24. There’s a vast difference between plot and premise. Premise is the set-up; plot is the action. For example. “Girl who goes to spy school” is a premise. “And falls for a normal boy” is the plot. There are a lot of brilliant premises that never found a conflict—never found a plot—and as a result the story failed.
25. Some writers know the entire plot of their story before they ever write a word. Some begin with a single idea and then dive in and figure out the rest as they go along. Some know the highlights but figure out the details along the way. There is no right or wrong—you just have to figure out what works for you.
26. Your plot should be constantly moving forward. Even when your characters hit roadblocks (and they should), they should keep working toward their goals.
27. Hitchcock had a term called “the MacGuffin”—that’s the item that everyone in the story wants and around which all action revolves. For example: Dorothy’s ruby slippers; The One Ring of power; the letters of transit that can get anyone out of Casablanca. Not every story needs a MacGuffin, but they’re useful plot devices to consider.
28. Make your characters earn things. It’s far more interesting if Cammie breaks into the East Wing to learn that boys are coming to her school than it is for her to hear it announced in an assembly, for example.
29. Be aware of the cause and effect of your character’s actions. For example, let’s say your character jumps off a train. What’s the effect of that? He hurts his leg. What’s the effect of that? He hitches a ride instead of running. What’s the effect of that? And so on and so on. Great plots are like dominoes lined up in a row, each one knocks over the next.
30. You story should probably contain “plot points”—the moments that hook into the action and spin it around. These are the moments where the characters know that tomorrow is going to be different from yesterday. These are the moments that make a book hard to put down.