This article first appeared on the Shannon Curtis blog.

I have a terrible time figuring out a plot.

I know what plot is. It’s action, and especially, it’s conflict. Conflict drives stories. But conflict is hard. I hate making my heroine suffer. She’s so nice. Why can’t everybody just get along? But of course, there’s no story if everybody’s happy. Without action, without conflict, there’s no plot, and then there’s no story.

Not all actions are created equal. To be plot, actions have to have consequences. In one of my favorite series, Charlaine Harris’s character, Sookie Stackhouse, likes to take showers. Early in Dead Reckoning, Sookie takes a shower after a tough night waiting tables at the bar. She relaxes in the hot water, letting her concerns wash away.

Then she goes to bed.

Is that plot? Of course not. It’s description, and it’s foreshadowing, but Sookie’s shower doesn’t have any consequences. There’s no real action in the action.

It’s different, though, when Sookie takes a shower with Eric. As anyone who reads the series knows, that shower had a lot of consequences, and not just the immediate, ah, steamy ones.

When I read books (sometimes many books) where the world is threatened, or the universe is threatened, or all the universes in all the galaxies in all of space are threatened, I sometimes think that’s a bit of overkill. I like a nice, juicy scare as much as the next person, but in real life, my biggest scare is usually along the lines of whether I’ll finish the milk before it goes sour.

But in writing Zero Gravity Outcasts, I went for the Big Scare myself, in the form of an interplanetary civil war. It’s because the consequences of actions have to be important. If they’re not, who cares? Not the readers, and not even the characters. The heroine might as well stay home and defrost the fridge.

Which I sort of like in a heroine, but I get that readers don’t—except maybe unless while the heroine is defrosting, the secret capacitor compartment was punctured, and the freon escapes, and the world is threatened by expanding, poisonous gases… and the heroine doesn’t want to call Gas Busters because she’d planned to settle in with a movie and some popcorn, but the handsome agent rings the bell, and…like that. In any event, the concept of struggle—of conflict—is key.

The thing I have to keep asking myself is, what’s at stake? If my protagonist fights the Deadly Hammer for 300 pages, killing angels and fairies and puppies along the way as collateral damage, suffers grievous wounds and the loss of family and friends, she better get more out of it than a trip to the store for a fresh quart of milk.

And that’s a whole other story. One that, I hope, I’ll be able to plot better next time.

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