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A plot maps a character’s journey, describing a drive through problems, actions, and reactions, which are crucial in escalating tension and keeping readers interested in the final destination. News tells what happens, and is boring. Story takes readers on an unpredictable path that follows a character’s desperate desire, rewarding them with a learning experience.

The principles of great storytelling apply to both fiction and nonfiction. The distinction is whether the event actually happened. Both must be believable.

  • Start with a Goal.

Your hero’s desperate need must be immediately apparent, or readers have no reason to care. A great story is driven by a character’s desire that is shared by readers. What your character wants, how he feels, and what he thinks about the dilemmas he faces, if they are true to life, will take readers through unpredictable twists and turns.

When you ask yourself, What does my character want? you’ve begun the discovery of plot. The dog died. Johnny went to college. Two events. Boring news. But if Johnny reacts to the death of his dog with a desire to become a veterinarian, you have the beginning of a story.

  • Identify the Obstacles.

If Solomon were speaking to writers, instead of saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” he would say, “There are no new plots.” All plots have a character who wants something and is challenged by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How wise of him to notice the sameness. He stopped short of noticing the differences that cause everything under the sun to be new.

The obstacles make the difference in a plot and free your story from boredom. Add obstacles to Johnny’s desire to be a veterinarian, like having no money and needing to support a sick mother, and you have the beginning of an interesting plot.

  • Measure an Event’s Impact.

Each scene must affect the character in some way, either positively or negatively, or it has no character-changing purpose and no right to exist. Characters change in reaction to the problems they face.

Suppose Johnny gets a job in a pet store—nothing like being a veterinarian, but his closest alternative. What can happen to reveal his character and bring change to his life? More obstacles. A new threat. Think of roadblocks you can throw up, so Johnny has a dilemma and must decide what to do, which way to turn. The store closes, and the pets will be euthanized if he can’t find a home for them. A disease from a pet in the store changes his mother’s status from sick to dying.

On 3 x 5 cards or a spreadsheet, list fifty or more problems that would make character-changing scenes. Organize them in order of least to most significant so the drama builds as your story progresses. Keep the best scenes. Throw out the not-as-good.

  • Victory Comes at the End.

Before the end, any victory must be of short duration, immediately followed by an even greater problem. Your hero must fail his way to success. As soon as the outcome is known, the story is over.

Readers want to predict what will happen, but they’ll be disappointed if they are right. You can’t bring a miracle to save the day. Your challenge is to find a solution that makes perfect sense but couldn’t be anticipated. This might be a physical defeat with a more-important moral victory. Whatever it is, give readers a cause for celebration.