The plots of most modern novels, especially Young Adult, are centered around action. But the action-centered, fast-paced plot that readers want and publishers demand can be difficult to achieve when the primary goal of your characters is simply to get from point A to point B.
Alas, this is the problem I am dealing with in my current work-in-progress, and for a Tolkien lover, this is especially difficult to accept. But we have to remember that many Tolkien readers never pick back up The Fellowship of the Ring after reading half way through the visit to Tom Bombadil or end up putting down The Return of the King as Sam and Frodo walk and climb and then walk some more towards Mount Doom. Tight plots demand a specific type of action and peril around every turn, and if Tolkien can barely get away with a lagging plot in today’s readership, then you and I definitely cannot.
- Remember that journeys are highly dangerous without technology
In a time when we travel a couple hundred miles in a day just for a weekend vacation, it is hard to remember that travel used to be highly dangerous. So research travel conditions for the time period you are writing about. But here are a few, general considerations for a fantasy or an ancient journey:
- No paved roads: Horses and travelers tire quickly. Wagons and carts struggle over the terrain.
- No government paid protection (Policemen): There will probably be robbers and other lawless men. Your characters will have to protect themselves. Bigger groups are best.
- No communication: There is no way to call for help (unless you have a magic owl or something). Situations may have changed—including wars starting or ending! Your characters may walk right into a war zone or show up at their destination and find out that there is a new king and anyone who supports the old king are now considered traitors.
- No refrigeration: Some food can be dried, but you can only pack so much. So for a long journey, enjoy several hours of hunting and gathering a day.
- No or few reliable maps: Good luck finding your destination if your paper map isn’t even right.
- All the action should point towards the climax, and most conflict should come directly or indirectly from the antagonist
For a tight, unified plot, the rising action should point towards a confrontation with the antagonist. Just because you are writing about a dangerous journey does not mean you can throw this away. If your antagonist is not a person and is an idea or force of nature, you may have an easier time making the journey’s trials come from the antagonist. But you must make sure that most of the action is leading to the climax and related to whoever or whatever your antagonist is.
So maybe your protagonists run out of food, but it need to be paired with a threat from the antagonists. Do not let your reader forget who the real enemy is in the midst of the struggles of surviving the journey because if you do, they will get bored and wonder why they even started reading your book.
- Keep your antagonist actively pursuing; don’t give your protagonists a break.
If you find that your antagonist is hanging back and plotting for a great trap at the end of the journey, you probably have a boring plot. It does not matter if he has planted a traitor or if he is following their every step. If your antagonist does not show up until the end of the journey, your plot will either be flat or the conflict will be random and unrelated to the real plot. So don’t rein in your antagonist and don’t worry about your heroes being able to fend him off until the end. You will figure it out, so take your antagonist off his leash.
Are any of you writing a story that centers around a journey? As many of you know, I am, and I just received some beta reader feedback that my plot is pretty flat for most of the story. These were the three solutions that I found. Do you have any other tips?