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?



Becoming a Storyteller: Building Initial Ideas, or, Get Thee to a Nunnery!

I’m one of Those people. Yep. I’m the guy that’ll open a blast email from, say, Writer’s Digest, and buy something they’re advertising–thus ensuring another blast will clutter any number of inboxes. The item in question this time is a writing book (yes, another writing book) entitled: The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates.

The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates
The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates

This book grabbed my attention for two reasons: 1.) The subtitle is “Finish your Novel in Your Spare Time”, which essentially what I have to do–you know, since I can’t quit my job; and 2.) It was on sale for $7.99.

The timing of blast email from Writer’s Digest Books was fortuitous as well, since I needed some new reading material for Spring Break. It helps that James Scott Bell, an excellent suspense writer and writing coach, recommended the book, too. Any while many books on the craft of writing can be hit or miss, I have found that this one has been right on target so far.

I confess to only having read through the first third or so of the book, but I’ve already found quite a bit of useful information–from thoughtful quotes to insightful exercises. Just this morning, the book helped spark the flash of a potential short story, one that had me scrambling out of the shower to jot down some notes wrapped in a towel. This last action began a number of concerned questions from my five year-old daughter.

“What are you doing, daddy?” she asked.

“Writing something down, honey,” I answered, water dripping to the notepad nestled on my lap.

She lingered, clearly processing the strange scene. “Why are you writing letters?”

“Because I had an idea.”

“Why is your hair wet?”

“I’m going back into the shower in a sec,” I said, flipping the pad closed with the pen marking the page.

“Don’t forget to use shampoo, daddy,” she said, sauntering from the room satisfied in delivering instructions normally reserved for her shower trips.

See, The Nighttime Novelist suggested an exercise that sparked a new idea. I’m planning on a new short story to submit to the Florida Writers Association’s upcoming publication. The collection’s focus this time is “It’s a crime”, and while in the shower, a character popped into my head. I then proceeded to ply the character using the exercise I just read in The Nighttime Novelist.

Here’s the exercise:

Building Initial Ideas

Directions: Choose an attribute from Column A and pair it with a character type from Column B. What does a given combination automatically suggest to you about character and conflict? What about plot, voice, tome, approach, possible scenes, and images?

Column A                                   Column B

talentless                                    surgeon

suicidal                                        nun

kindhearted                               circus clown

neuortic                                      suicide-hotline volunteer

unfulfilled                                   celebrity impersonator

scheming                                    department store Santa

racist                                            sports mascot

vain                                               supermodel

depressed                                   hitman

self-conscious                           relationship counselor

jealous                                         serial killer

In the chapter, the author, Joseph Bates, discussed at length how his creative writing students would craft interesting or compelling combinations. He said a “racist suicide-hotline volunteer” once prompted a 45-minute discussion. He went on to talk about how, when the obvious pairing were made (like a “kindhearted nun” or “vain supermodel”) the other students would chime in on why the pair wouldn’t work. Those uninteresting combinations brought nothing surprising.

We’d be writing caricature instead of character.

The chapter went on to create a “jealous nun” character. And the process was intriguing. A jealous nun. Jealous of whom? Jealous over what, exactly, and what might this jealousy lead her to do? The discussion leads to an interesting bit of character development. She’s jealous of a younger nun in her convent and her closeness to God. The pretty, young nun takes the role of the “other woman”, in some twisted sense.

Bates leads the reader to a set of questions that help form a story by addressing four basic problems:

  1. What does the combination really suggest in terms of what might happen?
  2. What would be motivation or driving our main character in such a situation?
  3. What would be opposing the character in the situation? (This could, and probably should, prompt many different answers, some of them small and personal in scope, others large.)
  4. What are the emotions evoked by or from the premise that we might consider universal? In other words, what could any reader identify with, regardless of whether or not she’s ever been in this exact situation?

And there you have it: plot, character, conflict, and theme.

This process strikes me like a more focused form of brainstorming. Something that’ll help you really dredge the riverbed of this idea. And who knows, maybe you’ll drag up something that is really valuable to the potential story.

The combination that struck me was a “depressed relationship counselor”.

Here’s what I scribbled on my notepad after jumping from the shower: (This may, or may not, be the opening to a new story story.)

Jeffery Tarragon hated his name. There were any number of reputable spices he’d gladly don as a moniker. Sage–sounding old and wise, inducing visions of Gandalf or Dumbledore, even Merlin. Maybe Basil, because with just the right pronunciation, it’d be exotic, provoking images of James Bond. Perhaps even something faintly religious, like, Rosemary.

But no, his name was Jeff Tarragon, so it was something of a surprise when he’d been informed his identity had been stolen.

His two sisters, Judy and Alice, couldn’t wait to get married to drop the Tarragon name, and Jeff himself had even considered legally changing his name. But he never did anything so adventurous. On his deathbed, Jeff’s father made him promise never to change the name.

Perhaps Fate was intervening.

We’ll see where it goes.

What combination would you make?