Giving Strength To Your Plots

For me, as a writer, the best way to build a good plot is to begin with a strong, sympathetic protagonist and put him into action against a similarly strong antagonist.

Strong, in this context, does not necessarily mean the jutting jaw, steely eyes and bulging muscles of the typical old-time pulp magazine hero. In a novelette called "The Dueling Machine" (which I later expanded into a novel), my protagonist was a gangling, bumbling young man who could barely walk across a room without getting into trouble. His antagonist was an equally young man who had athletic and martial arts skills. But the protagonist had strengths that the antagonist lacked, chiefly sincerity, honesty, and a dogged, stubborn kind of heroism that could take a lot of punishment without admitting defeat.

As Kipling pointed out in his Ballad of East and West:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth.

If you can place two strong characters "face to face," in conflict with each other, they will build the plot of the story for you. All you need to do is give them something to struggle over and a background in which to carry on the conflict. It might be a chess tournament, as in Fritz Leiber's "The Sixty-Four Square Madhouse"; or a struggle between a lone individual and a lockstep conformist society, as in Harlan Ellison's " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"; or the brutality of war, as in Joe Haldeman's novel, The Forever War.

In a short story there is very little room or time for a deeply probing psychological analysis of the characters, or a gradual building up of plot and conflict. Particularly in a science fiction short story, where so much effort must be spent on making the background understandable and believable, the writer must open the story with that noisy time bomb.

Most new writers do not understand that, although once in a while a newcomer hits that particular nail squarely. Scott W. Schumack accomplished it quite nicely in his first published work, "Persephone and Hades." Here are the opening lines of his story:

This is the way legends are born.

Twenty-three hours out of twenty-four Carver hunted her. He crept silently through the labyrinthine corridors and artificial caverns of the Necropolis, armed, wary of ambush, and above all, hating her.

In those few lines, the writer has established the protagonist, the antagonist, the background setting and a conflict. More than that. He has dangled what is called the "narrative hook" in front of the reader's eyes, and the reader bites on it immediately. We want to know more: who, why, where, when, how? The time bomb is ticking loud and clear in those first two paragraphs. We know it is going to explode, and we want to find out what is happening.

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