This is second of five checklists I've put together to help me in revising my novel. My first checklist, for characterization, is 38 Ways to Check for Character Life-signs. I'm also compiling checklists for Starting your Story (the all important first page and first chapter), Setting/Description, and Voice/Dialogue (coming soon).
To build a compelling plot, start with a tried and true structure. Here are four resources that provide variations on the basic story structure.
1. Four-part story structure (Larry Brooks, Rachel Savage): this pdf shows the four parts using a fun circus tent analogy
2. Emotional Structure (Peter Dunne): Susan Kaye Quinn created a five-point story structure based on this book.
3. The Writer's Journey (Chris Vogler): provides a 12-step story structure called the Hero's Journey
4. Save the Cat (Blake Snyder): Fifteen-point story structure. Laura Pauling shows the structure of How to Train Your Dragon in these 15 elements
I use these resources when I'm prepping and outlining. After writing my first draft, I bring my checklists into play to figure out what I need to revise. Here's my plot checklist:
5. Does your first chapter include a hook that raises a question or sets something in motion? (source: StoryFix: Hook vs. First Plot Point)
In some cases, this can be the same thing as the compelling opening image on the first page, or it can come later in the first chapter.
6. Does the first act of your plot include a major turning point? (StoryFix: the most important point)
This is where everything changes for the main character. It forces him to make a choice. To really make a compelling plot, this first turning point should also move him/her into a new situation where everything is different (or even opposite) of what his normal world used to be.
7. Does your plot have high enough stakes? (source: Janice Hardy: What's at Stake)
There has to be something personal at risk, not just a general danger. The main character(s) can't just walk away from the problem without losing something very important to them.
8. Does your plot include a dilemma? (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
It's not enough to force your character to make a choice between good and evil. It's got to be more complicated than that. For Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, the only way to catch one serial killer is to give another one what he wants.
9. Does your plot include plants and payoffs? (source: Laura Pauling)
A plant is a symbolic object or an event or in the first part of the story that re-appears in the middle or the end, but with a change that reflects the change in the story.
10. Does the plot include a false goal and a true goal for the character? (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
In the movie Avatar, Jake Sully wants to be a marine again (false goal). But he ends up fighting the Marines to save the world and people he's fallen in love with (true goal). Instead of a false/true goal, you can use a micro-problem/macro-problem, or if the problem stays the same then start with the wrong methods to solve it and end up with right ones.
11. Does your plot include a deadline? (source: Cockeyed Caravan)
If you can't impose an actual deadline, you can create the sense of one by having one character challenge another, "You'll never be able to do that!" or "You'll never last." I put this requirement in the middle act because setting a deadline or a challenge can be a great way to keep your middle from sagging.
12. Does the middle include a part where the hero is forced to face his/her fears or inner demons?
Often this meeting is NOT successful. (The scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker faces an imaginary Darth Vader during his training and fails the test).
13. Does the middle include a place where the hero makes a mistake? (source: Adventures in Children's Publishing, Plotting Complications Worksheet)
This is often a result of his/her first unsuccessful encounter with facing their fears. Again, in Empire Strikes Back, after failing the test encounter with an imaginary Darth Vader, Luke rushes off before he's ready to "save" his friends and steps into a trap.
14. Does the middle include a revelation? A point where new information is revealed that worsens the situation? (source: StoryFix: 8 moments you must deliver)
15. Does your plot include a moment when all seems lost? (source: StoryFix: 8 moments you must deliver)
This is the point where the hero has tried everything, maybe even conquered his inner demons, and it still looks like the bad guy(s) are going to win. Sometimes this is when the hero actually gives up and turns away or turns back (though we all know something will happen that makes him/her get back into the fight, we just don't know what it is, yet).
16. Does your main character have to sacrifice something to make for everything to turn out okay? (source: Janice Hardy: What's at Stake)
It's not uncommon to see the personal stakes shift to those larger 'save the world' stakes, but at this point in the story, the larger-scope stakes feel more personal because of this sacrifice.
17. Does your ending leave a few unanswered emotions or questions? (source: Cockeyed Caravan).
A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little bit. It has to have a few holes for us to get stuck in.
18. Does your ending have both a "wow, where did that come from?" element AND a "but of course, it had to happen that way" element? (source: K.M. Weiland).
These may seem contradictory, but both are needed for satisfying ending. A combination of foreshadowing and enough distracting complications is required to pull this off.
19. Does every scene serve some function to move the plot forward?
Sub-plots have to be related to the main plot. Scenes used to develop characters should also be related to the plot. Avoid tangents that don't serve a plot purpose.
20. Does your plot include reversals? (source: Nathan Bransford)
Star Wars is the classic reversal of fortune, where an unknown farm-boy turns into a save-the-galaxy-hero. It's also full of scene-by-scene reversals or a series of ups and downs that are the essence of a gripping story.
21. Does your plot include unexpected twists?
A compelling plot includes unexpected events or revelations that change everything we thought we knew and takes it to a whole new level. Janice Hardy provides some ideas for coming up with plot twists.
If you like checklists, then here are two more plotting checklists that I also use:
StoryFix: the single most powerful writing tool you'll ever see that fits on one page
Adventures in Children's Publishing: Plotting made easy - complications worksheet
What are the stories/movies that come to mind when you think of great plots?