What makes a story compelling? It’s all about plot. Author Stephanie Feldman breaks down her thoughts on how to make a great plot into an even better story. Read Feldman’s new story “The Boyfriend Trap” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]
by Stephanie Feldman
I spend a lot of time teaching the technical points of plot mechanics: how a first turning point kicks a story into gear, how a midpoint elevates and transforms the dramatic stakes, and how a climactic sequence should feel both surprising and inevitable. My students and I take a mathematical approach, measuring pace in percentage of words, each transition hinged on a precise moment of success or setback.
But the most perfectly plotted story in the world can still be just that—perfectly calculated and meticulous. Admirable, but not moving; satisfying, but not memorable, like a tasty meal that leaves you hungry an hour later.
A great plot isn’t a great story. For that, you need something primal driving—or tormenting—the character. Your character may have a flaw (they’re selfish, they lack confidence) or a personal struggle (they’re desperate to please their mom, their marriage is unhappy) or a fear (they’re afraid to be alone, they’re afraid to confront the past). This is the launching pad for their emotional journey. Such a journey doesn’t require the character to become a better person—there’s nothing satisfying about a forced moral lesson—but they do need to achieve a new level of honesty or insight.
In the spirit of that honesty, I’ll confess: I spend a lot of time explaining the above ideas, but I spend even more time struggling to get the formula right in my own stories—and then trying to make the stories sing.
This is no surprise, of course: Great art is hard to achieve. It’s why we get writers block, or goof off online, or clean our already clean houses, or dread the white screen or blank page. (Ok, to be very honest, my house is almost never already clean, but you know what I mean.)
This jump from plot arc, to emotional arc, to writing process reveals the third layer of the story: the writer’s own arc, the primal things that drive us and the needs we must confront.
No one wants to face their flaws—to admit they’re not perfect, that they’ve made mistakes, that they must do the hard work of forging and repairing relationships and examining their own feelings. But we must face these truths in order to be our own free selves. If our characters’ adventures force them to do this, then maybe our characters force us to do this, too.
Great art is hard to achieve. It’s why we get writers block, or goof off online, or clean our already clean houses, or dread the white screen or blank page.
That doesn’t mean a work of fiction is a diary entry, in plain sight or in code. Our fears can be gripping but still nebulous; specific but fueling a fictional scenario.
I hate to generalize “literary” and “genre” writers—I think our work has more in common than not—but I’ve found that my students writing SF, fantasy, and horror often start with a snappy concept, a ready-made plot springboard. For my story in this month’s Asimov’s, “The Boyfriend Trap,” that springboard was the image of a person in a wilderness landscape, and the lone light of civilization extinguishing. The world blinks out of existence, and when the lights come back on, she’s so relieved not to be alone that she doesn’t take a hard look at the world she’s returned to.
Before I could write the story, I had to determine why it mattered. What fear is even bigger than being lost in the wilderness or a destabilizing pitch black? The horror my character faces isn’t just a reality that she may not be able to trust; it’s a reality that serves as a mirror, or perhaps a spotlight, for all of the monstrous truths she’s kept in her own interior darkness.
As more and more of my work skews toward horror, I find that this is the key scalpel for revealing human experience: what scares us and why. Our stories need daunting and pressing problems, both realistic and speculative, but they also need our fears about society, humanity, and ourselves.
That’s what will make our stories, our carefully constructed plots and endings, meaningful and moving—that will become the spirit animating the bones, and will linger, like ghosts and great tales do.