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: Creating Conflict, or, Do I Have a Green Thumb for Fiction?

Drama is life with the dull parts taken out.  –Alfred Hitchcock

This post’s information comes to you via the works and words of one James Scott Bell, an author of numerous thrillers and books on writing craft, including Conflict & Suspense. James Scott Bell contributes regularly to Writer’s Digest, is an active teacher at writing conferences, and has a useful, entertaining Twitter account (@jamesscottbell), where he links to helpful articles on writing, provides tips and quotes, interacts with other writers and fans, and shows us mortals how to dangle the carrot:

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bell at the 2012 Writers Digest Conference in New York City. I attended his workshop on Conflict and Suspense, and after recently reading his article, The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them, for the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, I dug out the notes I had scribbled during the session.

Along my journey toward becoming a storyteller, I felt Conflict was something I had a good handle on. I mean, I know that without Conflict you don’t have a Story. I know it’s the struggle between two opposing forces, and I thought I did a decent enough job of sewing the seeds of Conflict into the lives of my characters. As it turns out, I might not have the greenest of fiction thumbs. I’m too soft on my characters, and when I do start to squeeze ’em a bit, it’s too late.

When I leafed through my notepad (Useless Bit of Information #1: As a lefty, I prefer Steno notepads to regular notebooks whose binding crowds my hand.), I found that one of the first bullets under James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense session read as follows:

Soil for Conflict: A Lead Character that Readers Care About

This struck me for two reasons. First, because I had spend part of the afternoon working on an interview for Julie Kolb, whose awesome blog is:, and answered one of her questions with a gardening metaphor. She had asked if I kept any of the stories I’d written when I was young, and here was my answer:

Do you still have those early stories? 
The earliest stories I have kept are from my college days as part of the creative writing program at Florida International University. I can look back and see the seeds of something greater. I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time watering those seeds though. The one complete novel manuscript that I have developed over 10 years, with its roots stretching way back to high school and much of the first draft being grown through college.

Second, my wife had quite literally just asked me to go water the plants in our new garden. (Useless Bit of Info #2)

During his talk, James Scott Bell discussed how true character is revealed in times of trouble and conflict. He said suspense is the withholding of a resolution.

Bell went on in the session to describe different types of Lead Characters to plant in said Soil. There’s the Positive Lead, vindicating or representing the values of the community; the Negative Lead, or someone who doesn’t represent the values of the community; and the the Antihero, someone who doesn’t want to be involved in any community. Bell said, foundationally speaking, we need a bonding with the Lead Character before we can get to the next part. Death.

Bell said in order to truly reveal these Lead Characters, the threat of Death needs to be involved. He went on to describe three types of Death: physical, professional, and psychological. The article in Writer’s Digest really does a nice job of developing this point. Our job is to make the Lead Character’s problem feel so important that failing to overcome it will mean a permanent setback in their life.

As I said in my answer to Julie’s question, many times I’ve seen the seed of Conflict in my fiction, but I haven’t done enough to cultivate it. I haven’t watered the plant of the story, and I’ve failed to let the Character bloom to his full potential. The guidance of writers like James Scott Bell helps me understand the different methods I can use to better tend this garden of fiction.

Check back soon, as I’ll have another post dedicated to James Scott Bell’s article: The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them and how I’m the jackass that has made ’em all.

Conflict & Suspense
James Scott Bell signed my copy of Conflict & Suspense, and he told me to keep writing. He’s a pro, so I guess I’ll listen.