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Plot: The Hand-Made Distance

Plot and character are closely linked, and the bridge between them is a GOAL.
 
Ever had one of those dreams where you’re late for something (late for school, late for work, late for the bus) or you’re running away from something (running from a disaster, running from monsters, running from an enemy), but your feet just don’t seem to move? Your muscles respond like you’re moving through a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pool full of corn syrup: a slow motion slog. Everything you do to try to get ahead just gets you further behind, closer to drowning, closer to crisis. Every solution transforms into a further monstrous obstacle. The distance to your goal seems unconquerable, thanks to the legion of nightmare-problems thrown in your way.
 
That’s plot.
 
Goals are the engine of the plot. Present your protagonist with a goal — a goal he desperately, passionately craves — but don’t gift-wrap that goal and leave it on his front porch. Hurl that goal into the invisible distance, and set up a string of obstacles in the way. No free rides. Make a list of dozens of potential ways that your story can prevent him from covering that distance. Get mean. Get freaking unfair. The less lucky your hero is, the more it can endear him to your audience. And then write it — write him into that mire. Watch him work to overcome them one by one, but then show how he just keeps climbing his way into the next disaster you had waiting for him.
 
Finally, once he seems to be within reach of that goal — once everything seems to be finally working out for him, his dreams are finally being realized, and he’s breathing a well-earned sigh of relief — bust it out. You know — IT. The worst obstacle, the most brutal one of all, the one that you saved for last. Throw it at him and let the final reckoning unfold. Explosions. Fireworks. The possibility that he will never accomplish that fervently-held goal, and yet the reality that there’s no way to turn back, no comforting old life to return to. The blackest, most dire moment of all, in which he could gain it all or lose it all.
 
That’s plot. It’s a series of roadblocks between your hero and his goal. (Including a biggest one, which he encounters last.)
 
That means that choosing the goal is very important. You probably have a vague goal for your protag now. But how do you know if it’s good enough?
 
Ask yourself what makes the character take action. Think of her, and then start poking and prodding at her. Take something away from her. Does she react? Then it wasn’t a good enough obstacle. So take away something more dear. Does that get her riled up? Ooh, good, you’re getting closer. Keep going. What would make her give it all away? What would make it clear to her that there’s no going back to the way things were? What would make her risk everything, put everything on the line, in order to achieve it? What would make her sacrifice her job, her position in society, her most cherished possession, the opinions of her peers, the love of her family? What’s the thing she desires most — and relatedly, what does she fear the most? What knocks her out of complacency, so that she has to do the unthinkable in order to achieve her most fundamental desires? What is the thing she would gladly die in order to accomplish?
 
That’s your protagonist’s goal. Find it, and then deny it, and you’ve got yourself a plot.

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