Storyline (plot) is interesting people in trouble and how they deal with it. As Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon) defined plot: “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.”
In effect, every story asks and then answers a “story question.” In the example above, the reader meets Joe, who is caught in a bear trap and struggling to get free. Obviously, the story’s question is, Will Joe be able to free himself and survive? We trust the author will supply us the answer.
If you are not clear on your story’s plot, it’s because you do not understand the story’s question(s). Once you know those questions, you’ll vividly see where the actions must lead to provide the answers.
The reader wants to find the major “story question” early in the tale, because the question drives the story (and the reader’s interest). In novel-length fiction, it's important to have a minor story question for every scene (f.g. Will she or won't she get him to notice her by the end of the encounter?).
When plotting a novel, it’s necessary to consider your story’s questions before writing. It doesn’t mean you have to know exactly how the novel is going to end (and you may not want to know in advance). But you need confidence the story will sustain itself for 700 or so typewritten pages. You need a strong sense of the story’s direction, especially some of the consequences and complications that your story’s set-up (the questions) will logically lead to.
(Incidentally, the fun with writing short stories is that the writing can be much more spontaneous, like improvisational jazz. You don’t have to go through all this—it’s optional. All you need is a provocative “What if?” question, a vivid image, or some other prompt in order to get going. If you end up wasting 15 pages on a story that falls apart—so what? It’s all a part of training, building up your writer’s muscles.)
Here are some basic story questions to consider when plotting a novel:
1) Whose story is it? (Who suffers most? Who changes most? Who is most active?) This is the protagonist.
2) What does this main character badly want?
3) Who or what gets in the way of getting it? This is the antagonist.
a. Repeat this list of questions when fleshing out the antagonist.
4) What is the internal conflict? (An internal struggle often will propel a tale more forcefully than an external conflict.)
a. What are the main character’s weaknesses (limitations, flaws, baggage)?
5) What is the external conflict?
a. What are the confrontations?
b. The setbacks? (What goes wrong with the plans?)
c. Are there any twists (unexpected obstacles that make things more complicated)?
6) How do things keep getting worse?
a. What’s the worst thing that can happen to this character? (Not just any nightmare, but this specific character’s worst nightmare.)
b. Is time running out?
7) What is the revelation? (The epiphany, the discovery of whodunit, etc.)
8) What is the showdown?
9) How does it finally end? You may not know when you begin Chapter One. That’s okay. Some authors don’t want to know the end ahead of time. Trust that the resolution will come to you as you develop your characters and their tale comes alive.