I am very bad at plot. At my best, I can turn out a pretty good sentence. I can iron out most point of view and tense issues in the edit. But plot just doesn’t come naturally to me.

Because I’m pretty geeky, my response has been to read up on the subject, which has lead me to various “YOU MUST DO THIS OR YOUR STORY WILL SUCK” type books. It seems that structure is a battlefield, and some pundits spend more of their time engaged in ideological skirmishes (usually as part of the Great War of the Outline) than in the crafting of story. Speaking of the Outline Wars, I recommend Chuck Wendig’s sensible advice.

I also found my way to Aristotle’s Poetics. The Poetics is one of those texts that is so influential, and has been for so long, that it seems weirdly familiar when you read it.

Here, in brief, are some Poetics-inspired questions I try apply to my erring projects.

Does every scene flow, by necessity or probability, from a preceding event in the story?

There should be a ‘because of…’ relationship between everything that happens in a narrative. This isn’t to say that every event needs to be shown. Much of the story can have happened before the action even begins, or might happen between scenes. It’s important though that everything shown should be caused by something that went before it, and that the connections should be plausible. I’m looking at you Doctor Who.

A story does not mirror actual events so much as things that seem right to us.

Aristotle stood against biography and historiography in tragedy. It’s not about what did happen, but what would plausibly happen. We tend to think in terms of narratives — just pick up a tabloid.

Does the reader care?

The prime purpose of tragedy, Aristotle said, is to evoke pity and fear.

Does the main character deserve this investment?

The protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable, but does have to carry some kind of reader identification. The reader must at least care about this character’s journey, and find points of identification. Aristotle warned against building characters that disgust audiences because this mitigates against pity and fear.

Is there a reversal?

Is there a moment at which fortune changes.. from bad to good, or good to bad? Is it satisfying? By which I mean that the reversal should flow from events already known. If a piano fell on my head just after I got my publishing deal that would be a reversal, but not a satisfying one. If, on the other hand, I had been financing the writing of my novel though credit card fraud, and I was arrested just after getting my book deal.. now that would be satisfying.. for the reader, if not for me.

Is there a moment of recognition?

The protagonist should recognise her plight, and preferably understand what she did to bring it about. Revelation is satisfying. Recognition and reversal are quite closely related. As the police approach, I understand that I’ve been borrowing against a future that might never come, not just in my illegal activities, but in all the ways I have treated the present moment, and those around me, with contempt. Be careful though.. this shouldn’t be trite.

Is there a ghost in your box? If so, rethink.

Aristotle warned against the Deus ex Machina. Anything that resolves your story must already be an organic part of it. Having the cavalry suddenly arrive, or a god intevene, or a sudden legacy wiping out your character’s debt is cheating, and the readers will agree.

Is there a twist?

Aristotle said that astonishment is good but not essential. Beware, though, if the story is to have a surprising resolution, the surpise is really only effective if the reader sees at the end that the story has slyly demonstrated good reason why this astonishing outcome is actually plausible. Remember… necessary or probable!

“Woodcut of Aristotle and Alexander the Great” by POP is licensed under CC BY 2.0