The ABDCE’s of Plot Development

So. In my creative writing class these days, we’re discussing the elements of short story. The students are preparing for and brainstorming a draft of their first short story, and over the last few class periods, we’ve focused on Plot. When considering this integral element of storytelling, I gravitate toward the work of Anne Lamott, specifically her seminal work on writing craft Bird by Bird.

typewriterAnneLamottThere are some that discuss story as being either plot-driven or character-driven. I think that distinction is an erroneous one. I tend to agree with Lamott, who in her chapter on Plot from Bird by Bird says: “Plot grows out of character” (54).

All considerations from a storytelling perspective emerge after we, as writers, have an idea of who our main character might be. Decisions about Point of View and Conflict come in the wake of deciding who it is we’re dealing with. Now, this character may change along the way, but character is the starting point for all things Story, including Plot.

Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction (we can’t have a story without it), but in order to discover this element, we need the context of Character. Lamott instruct us to “find out what each character cares most about in the world, because then [we] will have discovered what’s at stake” (55). It’s in the pursuit of this desire that Conflict, and more specifically Plot, emerges. 

The ABDCE’s of Plot

In her chapter on Plot, Lamott mentions a lecture she attended by Alice Adams, a writer and university professor who created a simple formula for Plot development. The formula she uses when writing a short story is ABDCE (Action, Background, Development, Climax and Ending).


To start, we need to draw the reader in with a compelling opening. This opening action is called an “inciting incident.” It’s the moment that launches the story into it’s upward trajectory and introduces the elements of Plot and Conflict.


Since Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, we need to discover why this action and conflict is so compelling to the characters. Who are these people? How have they come together? What’s happened before the story that informs the reaction to this initial action?


This section represents the bulk of the story. This is the “rising action” of the traditional plot pyramid. Here, we explore the Wants and Motives. The characters are Active and Tension builds. Each obstacle propels the characters further along the journey, and each obstacle is more difficult to overcome than the last.


The Climax is the most important moment of a story. This is the coming together, the turning point. Everything changes in the story and for the characters in the wake of this scene, this moment. After the Climax, things are different in a meaningful way.


As the journey comes to a close, as the characters come down from the emotional high of the Climax, the ending provides the necessary closure for the reader. Who are these characters now? How have they changed? Is the ending closed, or open? Did the character have an epiphany? The Ending needs to demonstrate the meaningful change that stems from the Climax.

5 Steps for Plot Development

Plot grows out of character, and Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction. When considering how our Plots will unfold, we need to remember that readers demand Unity in regards to Plot, a plausible cause-and-effect development. Also, readers demand Significance, that the story shows us something about human nature. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story?

Here are 5 Steps for Plot Development loosely based on Lamott’s ABDCE’s of Plot.

  1. Describe your story in one sentence. (If you can’t, you might not have a clear enough idea.)
  2. State what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot will emerge from this desire. After, stick 3 obstacles to prevent your character from obtaining this goal.
  3. Write a character description of your Protagonist. Include Look, Likes, Dislikes, Fears, Traumas, and Basic Living Situation.
  4. Arrange the events of your story on a timeline. What will happen in the Inciting Incident? In what order will your character deal with the 3 obstacles you previously development? What’s the Climax going to be?
  5. Finally, create a map of the Setting where the primary Action of your story will unfold. What’s meaningful about this place? Why is the Climax happening here? How can this Setting become a character in the story?



4 Gifts any Writer can use for Christmas

My Daughter's Christmas List
My Daughter’s Christmas List

So, last Saturday night my five year old daughter, with the help of her Nana, penned her 2012 letter to Santa. She claims to have been a good girl, and as such, she felt obliged to request a few gifts for Christmas. Among the traditional wants, she includes, in no particular order, a picture of angels, a Rock Star (Not sure if she’s old enough for energy drinks, Santa), a little sheep, and a picture of a tall ladder.

That’s right. What all little girls pine for. A picture of a tall ladder.

While this list has elements of stream of consciousness, it got me to thinking. What would a writer’s Christmas list look like?

It’s tough to generate a generic list for the writer, so many writers are at so many different stages along their journey. But, I think the welcomed gift any writer can receive is Time.

Writers need Time to write. Time away from the normal bustle of activity to seclude ourselves in our own little worlds. That’s why we write in the first place, right? I think Time can be found at a Writer’s Retreat, or even in just an afternoon. (I’m more of a morning writer, though not a morning person–go figure.)

The next thing I think any writer would welcome is Guidance. For those of us toiling without an agent or an editor, we can find that guidance from those that have gone before. Most writers would agree that Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird are the best of the best in terms of books on writing. I’ve found a few other books particularly useful, including Orson Scott Card‘s How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy,  John Gardner‘s The Art of Fiction and Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel

An extension of the Guidance gift could be the gift of Mentoring. As a would-be novelist, any time I can spend at writers’ conferences or workshops is indispensable. The chance to network, receive feedback, pitch, learn, and vent is integral to the publishing process (if not the writing process).

To go along with some of the other gifts so far, I’d love to get me some Endurance. Now, endurance can come via a nice, warm cup o’ joe–and those are welcome in perpetuity. But it can also come via the strength to last during those long days and nights staring at our Inbox, waiting for word from that Agent, or that Editor, or that Magazine, that our story has been the one they’d been waiting for. Endurance is required to overcome those messages that herald yet another rejection.

The fourth gift on the list is Conviction. For those moments when our Time runs out, or the Guidance is lacking, and we’ve perhaps Endured as much as we felt possible, we writers need the Conviction that our stories are worth telling. We need to be so fanatically convinced that it’s deserving of an audience that we push through those darker moments of self-doubt that plague us all.

Finally, to stuff ye olde stocking, Santa, feel free to gift a Maid Service (to help with Time), a subscription to the 2013 Novel and Short Story Market (for Guidance/Mentoring), a Massage session (for Endurance, duh.) and some Literary Action Figures.

So, my 2012 Santa letter read thus:

Dear Santa,

I have been a reasonably good writer this year. For Christmas, I would like to have:

  1. Time
  2. Guidance and Mentoring
  3. Endurance
  4. Conviction
  5. Literary Action Figures