As I've previously stated, I believe that the only common element in (almost) all writing success stories is the writing of an incredible book. The avenue to publishing is a little different for everyone, some through writing conventions, some through cold querying, some through incredible turns of events, but every single one had a pretty darn good novel that they were peddling.
And what, exactly, does it take to make a good novel? Well, in my opinion, a good novel is the sum of the following equation: captivating voice + engaging plot + compelling characters + creative setting = amazing novel. (now, as anyone who took Algebra ((or in my case, retook Algebra)) will tell you, in an addition equation, it doesn't matter what order you put things in, as long as they're all there, you'll be fine.)
Well, I covered voice (or touched on it at least) in this post, so I want to get right into the next value of the equation.
There have been plenty of great blog posts out there about different plot structures, pantsers vs. plotters, plot driven vs. character driven, etc. so I'm not going to dwell on any of the nitty-grittys. I'm going to come at it from a different perspective.
First of all, what is a plot? Well, to put it simply, the plot is the journey your story takes from beginning to end. It may be a 3-Act Structure plot, it may be a 5 Major Points plot, it may be a divergent storylines plot, a reverse timeline plot, or a multiple POV, massive collision of characters in the final chapter plot. Any of those will do.
Your options of plotting your novel are as wide and varied as your options of going from your house to New York City. You could drive, fly, walk, swim, take a train, go in a UFO, or whatever you want. But, you have to get there, and to get there, you have to leave from somewhere.
So, in my humble opinion of course, the first rule of your plot is this:
1. Your Plot Must Exist.
Like I said, I don't care if the journey of your story is a 100MPH race down the Autobahn or if it's a meandering pony ride in the Applachians, as long as we're going somewhere, I'm willing to invest in it. But, if your book is nothing more than a treadmill, a whole lot of effort without any payoff at the end, then I'm going to jump off ASAP. That's just my nature, and that's the nature of your readers, too.
Speaking of "jumping off", that reminds me of another very important, oft ignored rule of a story's plot:
2. Don't Throw Momma From The Train.
The best illustration of this comes from one of my daughters' favorite movie, Barbie Fashion Fairytale. (I know, I know, I can rent my masculinity back in 15 years.) In this movie, Barbie is an actress playing the princess of the princess and the pea story. The set up is great, the setting perfect. Then, out of nowhere, there comes some Zombie Peas, lifesize, rapping about how much they hate the princess and being peas. Barbie throws a fit because her movie is ruined. They threw momma from the train.
How many times have you been reading merrily along, and then you got thrown off the train? Out of nowhere, the steely detective becomes a buffoon, the strong female protagonist becomes a bimbo, or some other horrific crime is committed against the story we have invested ourselves in. Don't let that happen to your story.
And, speaking of investing in your story, here's the last rule for this blog:
3. The Bigger the Risk, the Bigger the Reward.
I'm reading your book, and you've been feeding me some great writing. The plot has been captivating, and I'm getting more and more antsy to see the end. Then, we get there, and it all turns out to have been a dream inside your main character's head. Or I find out that you're just going to destroy the world and start all over. Or some other nonsensical, disappointing ending that doesn't pay the reader off for all the time and energy they invested in the story.
That's the biggest complaint I and many others had about the final book int he Twilight saga, the payoff was disappointing. We were all set up for an epic war between vampires and werewolves, and instead it turned into a UN Summit. It was terrible.
I don't care about your structure, but if you don't have a climax to your book, you don't have a plot. End of story.
A great example of a great plot comes to us, not from the storybook world, but from the music world. Think of the Journey song, "Don't Stop Believing". We all can get on board with the chorus of that song, but think about this: That song is 4:11 long, yet the chorus only comprises the final :50 of the track. That's 3:21 of preparation for the incredible climax, which is why we all buy into the song. We love being teased, especially when there's a reward at the end.
So, go write an amazing plot.