Merlin Missy has been active in online fandom since 1994. She likes fanfics with plots and happy endings.View all articles by Merlin Missy
My six year old is currently fixated on a series spoken of in horrified tones by parents everywhere as "Those Pigeon Books." There is a pigeon. It wants to drive a bus. It wants to stay up late. It wants to eat a hot dog. It even wants a puppy. It cajoles and wheedles and begs while the audience is generally supposed to respond in a loud voice "NO!" On the one hand, I applaud this use of a fun method to help children avoid peer pressure on things they know are wrong. (A benevolent adult figure -- the bus driver -- shows up to provide the appropriate answer early on.) On the other, I'm deeply disturbed at my son's new-found use of the phrases "Come on!" and "Your mom would let me do it!" Nevertheless, the pigeon wants something, he goes through a great deal to try and get it, and there's a resolution. The pigeon books have a plot.
Fanfiction, dear fanthing, can come in almost infinite formats, and I find that the vast array of possibilities is part of why I like fanfic. Fanfiction can be in a six word story. (Or as mentioned previously, a two word story, as in the Discworld/Pinky and the Brain crossover "Narf?" "SQUEAK.".) Fanfiction can be a story with over five hundred thousand words bled upon the page. Fanfiction can be a deep, introspective character piece. Fanfiction can be a vignette. Fanfiction can be plotty. Fanfiction can have no plot at all. (And some are handily labeled as such, although "Plot, What Plot?" is not so much a designation on all plotless stories, just the fun ones.)
You may wish for your stories not to have a plot. You may not care if your stories have a plot. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a story without a plot. No, not even if it's huge and multichaptered and eats Fanfiction.net alive. It's fanfic. Anything goes. If, however, you are unsure if your story has a plot, or you would like to examine this whole concept further, please keep reading. We can help.
Plots are basic. Some writers have a good instinct for them. Some writers don't. It doesn't matter which one you are. No, really. Like many other tools of the trade, plot can be learned, it can learned easily and painlessly, and then it is just another item in the toolbox to use when you're ready. This is a win/win.
What is plot? Plot is simple. Plot is: desire -> obstacle -> resolution. That's it. Your story may have multiple plots. Kurt Vonnegut had a lot of rules for writing, and one of them was, "Have every character in the story want something, even if it's just a glass of water." This is good advice.
Sometimes this desire is easily fulfilled: "I want a doughnut. I take the doughnut. I am pleased." Sometimes this desire is harder to fulfill: "I want a doughnut. We are out of doughnuts. I must purchase doughnuts. I climb mountains and fight orcs to reach the doughnut shop. I have my doughnut. I am happy." Sometimes the desire turns out tragically: "I want a doughnut. I have no doughnuts. The doughnut shop has burned to the ground and I have a week to live. I will get no doughnuts. Woe." Sometimes the desire changes: "I want a doughnut. I have no doughnuts. I go in search of doughnuts. Along the way, I discover what I really want is a Danish. I have a Danish. Life is good." When people say there are only seven plots? That right there was four of them (the first may only count as fluff).
I love using "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" as my example of plot. Who are the characters? Harold and Kumar. What do they want? Food from White Castle. What's in the way? Many events, including riding an escaped cheetah, because plots do not necessarily have to make a lot of sense. What's the resolution? They find a White Castle and eat there. The plot is on the tin. It's nice.
What about something epic like "Lord of the Rings"? Ah, this is where plot complications and intersections come into play. The plot is partially driven by the villains: Sauron and Gollum want the One Ring back. The heroes are in the way. Sauron never gets it again, while Gollum does. The heroes drive the plot as well, since their actions are driven by their own desires. Aragorn wants the confidence to believe himself to be King. Sam wants to get this done as quickly as possible, go home, and live with Frodo and Rosie. (I always forget while rereading that the three of them end up living in the same house, and I always react with, "Srsly?") Eowyn wants to be treated as an equal to the men in her life instead of a piece of chattel. Boromir wants Gondor to be safe and proud under his father's rule. Saruman wants the Ring but mostly wants power. Frodo himself becomes a sea of conflicting desires, and the only resolution left for him is to leave the land of desires entirely. All of these plots meet each other and build on each other, and that's what makes the story flow.
Plot is about letting the story flow. It's about not just having characters go from A to B to C, but giving them reasons for every step, even if it's simply reacting to what other characters have wrought from their own desires. Sometimes characters do just react to events, but the characters we find most fascinating as fans are the ones who go out and make the changes and events because of their own desires, even if their only desire is to make things better.