Plot is a tricky thing. It’s like being popular back in high school—the best way to get it is to not care about it too much. If everyone sees you trying too hard, then you’re going to spend your prom night in the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot throwing donuts at passing cars.

What’s so hard about plot? Why it’s it just ‘deciding what happens?’ A follows B follows C, right? So all you have to do is come up with that sequence: A then B then C, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.

That’s what makes plot at tricky thing, because that is absolutely, positively, without a doubt not the way to develop a good plot.

The problem is that by coming up with the sequence of events directly, you, the author, are sticking your big meat-stick of a hand into the story and arranging things how you want them. In order to get your big climax, your hero has to sacrifice herself here, and your antagonist needs to be in position over here, so you just pick them up and move them where they need to be. But people don’t want to read stories where the author is moving characters. People want to read stories where the characters move themselves.

And this is the crux of the problem: as a writer, you obviously need to have some idea of what will happen. If you keep your big sausage-fingers out of the pie, so to speak, won’t that mean anything can happen? Are you going to write your fantasy epic and then find out halfway through that your protagonist just doesn’t want to face the bad guy, and so she just gives up and goes back home? Are you going to write a historical romance where your main characters decide that society is right and they’re not a good match for each other?

Fortunately, no. Even if you stay away from directly manipulating your characters, you have quite a bit of control over the plot, because you get to decide the answers to two key questions: who are the characters, and what are the obstacles? Your answers to these questions produce a plot that is owned by your characters, rather than the other way around.

The reason your fantasy-epic protagonist is going to push all the way to the end to face your bad guy is because she has guts and determination. It’s because she’s highly motivated and because she has the skills and knowledge necessary to make it all the way to the end and save the world. You know that’s what she will do, not because she’s a puppet on a string, but because you know who she is.

Conversely, the reason your fantasy-epic protagonist isn’t going to figure out that the real bad guy is actually the crown prince is because she’s trusting, perhaps to a fault. It’s because her best friend told her an innocuous lie that turned out to hide a critical piece of information. You know she’s not going to short-circuit the whole story and defeat the bad guy in chapter four, not because you manipulate her into taking the long route, but because you manipulate her surroundings.

Imagine a sailboat race around a series of islands. The ships go from point A (the starting line) to point B (the finish line). Each ship is self-motivated—there’s no gigantic hand dragging them every which way across the ocean—and yet the race is ‘determined’ in advance by the quality of each captain and ship, by the weather, and by the obstacles that appear in each ship’s path. Because you, the all-powerful god of sailboat races, control these factors, you don’t need to drag them where you want them to go. They’ll do it because of who they are and because of the external events that happen to them.

It’s certainly possible to go too far with this sort of manipulation, even if you stay away from directly ‘moving’ your characters where you want them to go. A character’s reaction to a particular obstacle might be perfectly natural and believable, but if the appearance of the obstacle is too obviously designed to control the plot, then readers will see your authorial process ‘at work.’ In other words, it’s almost as bad to make an obstacle conveniently appear that makes a character do something as it is to just make them do what you want them to do in the first place. Make sure that when you manipulate the environment, your manipulations are believable and as minimal as possible. It’s not credible to have a freak storm blow out of a clear-blue sky to blow a sailboat far off course. It could be perfectly credible, on the other hand, to have a storm blow up on a dark and blustery day. It won’t be believable if your protagonist’s friend withholds a crucial bit of information for no apparent reason; it might be perfectly believable if the friend was angry or jealous, and didn’t understand how important the information was.

The world of your story is your own. Your characters belong to you. But the plot belongs to the characters. It’s in their hands—let them sail.

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