We are all familiar with the need for a central unifying goal to drive the plot forward. This objective can be a shared objective, such as the desire to steal a statue in the Maltese Falcon, or it can be a shared or collective goal, such as in a Mid Summer Night’s Dream in which all the characters are seeking a satisfying relationship, but not with the same person!
Objective is the primary and most essential story point in your plot, but there are three other plot points that are nearly as crucial to creating a captivating plot.
If the Goal is what the characters are after, then the Consequence is what is after the characters! If the characters are chasing something, that can be exciting. But if something is chasing the characters as well, it doubles the tension. Typically, consequences are the bad things that will happen if the Goal is not achieved. But they can also be bad things that are already happening and will continue to happen if the Goal is not achieved.
For example, if the goal is to discover a hidden secret, that can create drama. But if the families of those trying to find the secret suffer a misfortune if it’s not discovered, that is much more intense drama.
Having a goal is fine, but if it were something that would be achieved or not in only a moment, the story would be over before it started. Goals can’t just be achieved. Rather, a series of Requirements must be met that will cause the goal to be achieved, or enable the characters to then tackle the goal directly.
Requirements can be a collection of items that must be obtained or endeavors that must be successfully undertaken in any order, like a scavenger hunt. Or, a goal’s requirements might be a series of objects or activities, which must be performed in order, more like advancing through grades in order to graduate from school.
It helps a story move along to spell out what the requirements are before the end of your first act, or opening dramatic movement. This provides a clear idea of where things are heading, and allows your reader or audience to put plot events into context.
This is not to say that complications can’t arise, or that additional requirements might be added. But providing an initial list of requirements will create a yardstick against which your readers or audience can judge the story’s progress toward it’s ultimate conclusion.
Just as a goal has requirements, consequences have forewarnings. These can be as simple as cracks forming in a dam or the extent of the rash on a hapless fellow who’s been poisoned.
As with requirements, forewarnings can be a matter of degree (“We keep losing people who are withdrawing from the production. If we don’t act soon the performance will be cancelled”) Or it can be a sequence, such as the countdown before a bomb explodes or the adversary passing through a number of stages before achieving their goal.
Without forewarnings, the consequences are just a nebulous threat or existent condition. But forewarnings make the consequence come alive, become immediate, and impending.
All Four Together
All four essential plot points work together to create a web of tension, but long and short term, that can flux and flow. The objective looms ahead as the threat looms in the rear view mirror. And along the way, requirement road signs tell us how far we have to go, while the growing size of the headlights in the mirror forewarn that the consequences are almost upon us.
Will we get to the goal before we are overtaken, or will we be run down from behind just moments before we might have grabbed success? These are the questions that inject tension in your plot, in addition go giving it direction.