Plotting Your Story, Step #3: External Story (Plot)

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Hi, everyone, and welcome to my blog post series…

Plotting Your Story: How to Craft a Complex, Compelling Story Plot!

For more about this blog series as a whole, please read the Intro Post.   Be sure to also check out the previous posts in the series, Plotting Your Story, Step #1: Premise and Plotting Your Story, Step #2: Internal Story (Characters)!


Today’s post is the next in the series:

Plotting Your Story, Step #3: External Story (Plot)!

As we talked about in the last post, every story has conflict.   Conflict is the life-blood of story, what gives it intrigue and entertainment value.   Every story has conflict, but the great stories — the ones that really stick with readers — have not only conflict, but layers of it.  One of the most important aspects of crafting a story is to ensure that your protagonist has two layers of conflict happening in the story — an Internal Story layer and an External Story layer.

Last week’s post was all about the Internal layer, crafting characters who go on a journey of mental and emotional growth through the course of the story.   Today we’re going to talk about the External layer — the plot events and outside conflicts which pull that character into the journey… into the thrust of the story. 

The external layer, in its simplest sense, is your plot. 

But the plots that really click into a strong story have a lot of moving pieces, so let’s look at those together.

Here are the major things I consider when developing an External Story (plot):

1. Make sure the plot builds on your character’s Internal Story

The external plot should not just be a random sequence of events (even if they sound interesting!).  Rather, it should be carefully crafted so that your plot adds an external, physical layer of conflict which will push your character to naturally face the internal conflicts you’ve set up for your Internal Story Arc.   

Use your Premise to guide you as you work through these steps… unless you’ve decided to completely overhaul your premise as a result of working more on your characters and Internal Story (in which case, go back and redo Step #1!), your External Story (your Plot) should fit in with the life-changing event & journey you set up in your premise.  Once you’re sure you’re on track for your premise and what you intended to do with the story, then look at your Internal Arc and make sure your plot is effectively driving your character to face their inner demons.

2. Make sure you have a complete External Story Arc

An incomplete story will leave readers frustrated… and what you want is for your readers to close your book inspired and satisfied.   That means you need a complete story, not just a series of events strung together without a purposeful direction.   So how do you accomplish this sense of purpose as you plot your story?

First, refer back to your premise and Internal Story.   Yes, again. If your plot is going off-course, your premise is the tool to reign you back in and reset your focus.  Your Internal Story is your tool to determine whether your plot will actually challenge your character to grow.  Use these as guidelines to start your ideas flowing for what could happen in your External Story or plot.

Next, think about your plot not only as a sequence of events, but as a purposeful progression of tension, building toward a climax and resolution.

A strong plot will include at least these pieces:

–a starting point where you show what the character’s “normal” life looks like

–a life-changing event that shakes up their “normal” state

–a reactive phase (where your character is just trying to survive defensively against the new situation)

–a mid-point (a moment where new info is revealed that changes things once again, and ideally your character has a major internal epiphany about themselves as a result, tying your Internal and External stories together)

–an active phase (where your character goes on offense)

–a climax (where external conflicts hit their highest and a battle is waged)

–a resolution (a wrap-up that leaves your readers feeling satisfied about the major conflict of this book, even if you’re planning another book in the series and don’t wrap up everything yet)

There are lots of other things that can fall in-between these points in your plot, but if you have these major plot points planned out, you’ll be on a solid track for success with working out your External Story.

I suggest actually drawing these out on a visual arc, so that you can see how your story’s tension progresses.   I’ve put in the major points as place-holders, but you would want to replace those with a short little note about what you actually plan to have happen in that particular scene of the story.

External Story Arc

Again, these are just the major scenes… there will be many smaller scenes, in-between, connecting each of the major points to what comes before and after it.  We’ll talk about these more later in the series, when we get to Step # 6: Detailed Outlining.  But if you have at least these few major plot points in place, you can have confidence that your story’s plot will be building in tension… and — if all goes well — keeping your reader’s interest so intensely that they just can’t put your book down!  If you think of specific scenes beyond the major ones that you know you want to put somewhere, go ahead and jot them down on your Arc, too (wherever you think they best fit), so that you won’t forget them.

3. Double-check that all the major points on your External Story Arc align with points on the Internal Story Arc.