HowTo Write Fiction Without The Fuss: plot development – starting the journey

Welcome to Part Seven of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at plot development – starting the journey. 

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fussEvery work of fiction takes its main characters on a journey – known in literature as “the quest”. Many of the less important characters accompany them on this journey, or embark on their own, different but related quests. Some of the lesser characters may be “static” – they remain in the same position, in a constant world, with an unchanging attitude throughout the plot – but this tends to make them the least interesting part of your story.

Whether you are writing an epic novel or a very short story, the quest is the essence of fiction and can take almost any form conceivable. The classic form of hero’s quest tales are found in ancient mythology: for instance, Jason and the Argonauts go on a hazardous journey to find and bring home the Golden Fleece; Theseus negotiates the seas and a maze to slay the Minotaur and returns with white sails on his ship to herald his success.

Physical journeys into strange lands remain a popular story line for authors from Daniel Defoe to Philip Pullman, but the plot structure of “the quest” encompasses all fiction, from murder mystery (the quest to find the killer) and romance (the quest for the one true love), to quests for revenge, happiness, truth, justice, self-understanding, health, scientific knowledge and the meaning of life…

However exotic or mundane, literal or metaphorical the quest(s) of your story are, they need to go through well-defined phases to keep your readers engaged. Last week we worked on outlines for Section 1, The Trigger, and skipped straight from there to the final Section 8, Resolution. So now we have in place the “inciting incident” – the event or action that sets the hero/heroine on their quest – and we know how their story will finish, it’s time for them to embark on their journey.

We are going to work on Section 2, Quest Begins, and Section 3, Quest Continues, of your chapter breakdown. From your 1-page plot outline, take the notes you made on Sections 2 and 3 and transfer them to the new pages for these sections you opened and headed last week. As with Sections 1 and 8, you are now going to expand these into two chapter breakdowns, each between one and two pages long.

This part of a novel can be something of a danger zone.

The interest and excitement of the opening, meeting new characters and the shock of the inciting incident grabs a reader’s interest. Later, the characters’ development and the twists and turns of the plot will keep the reader wanting to get to the end of your story. But right now, maintaining that interest as you set up and begin the quest is challenging, so consider which of these devices may help you do that as you embark on your story.

Is the main character reluctant to take on the quest? Is it frightening, dangerous or pushes them out of their comfort zone? In what way can you engage the reader in their difficult decision to take the first step? Does another character, or a new piece of information or action provide an added incentive? Alternatively, is the hero(ine) keen to  get started, but circumstances or other characters are against them? If so, what are the reasons – do we suspect foul play at this point, ulterior motives of others for derailing the quest? In either scenario, maintaining an element of mystery about the difficulty of starting the quest will keep the reader wanting to know why, whether it will actually happen or how it will affect the outcome.

Remember, as you set up the quest, to keep asking, but not yet answering, for the reader, the questions: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?

Following the initial Trigger section, your job in Section 2 is to ensure the reader believes in the vital importance that the quest should happen, is drawn in further by the possibility that it might not, but reassured at the end of the Quest Begins section, that the protagonist is on their way.

Plot development - starting the journeyIn Section 3, the Quest Continues, your plot moves into a new phase: the set up of the main story is done, the reader has set off on the journey with the main characters. This, then, can be an ideal time to introduce a new element: a fresh or simmering sub plot which counterpoints the main plot with a parallel or opposite quest; or threatens to undermine the protagonists now or at some later point in the story. Alternatively, or additionally, a new, positive character could come into play (an ongoing confidant or supporter – a Dr Watson or Man Friday) to add richness and subtlety to The Quest, or new skills or perspectives to help achieve it.

For Sections 2 and 3, create detailed notes about the scenes you will need to set, snatches of dialogue, and remember to set up hints and clues, the significance of which the reader will not find out till later. Keep in mind the Resolution you have already outlined and make sure that everything you set up in Sections 2 and 3 can be resolved in the way you have defined (although adjustments to the ending can be made at any time).

Look back, too, over what you have written in the last six weeks about your plot overview, characters’ development, your story’s setting and theme and make sure your chapter breakdowns stay consistent with these. Doing this will also remind you how much you have achieved so far, and will make the writing, when we begin, much easier and more enjoyable.

Next week: Reversals!

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

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