So our main character has a problem, what are we going to do about it? Do they need some characters to help them? Do they need to get some tech or something to help them? Are they going to have to get somewhere to solve this problem? How? Each of these things that move a character closer to solving their problem are like stations on a train line, you’re probably going to have to stop at each one but you’ll get there in the end. When we start a story we don’t necessarily have to know exactly what these stops are because planning doesn’t work for everyone. If planning doesn’t work for you it’s fine to wander around a first draft to find these points because we can edit out any bits that don’t work later.
In Lord of the Rings Frodo needs to meet The Fellowship and travel across Middle-Earth to destroy The Ring. In superhero stories, like Spiderman, the hero needs to get their super-suit, their superhero name and practice a little light vigilantism to develop their skills before taking on the main villain. In a crime story, like Ocean’s Eleven, we need to assemble the team, plan the heist and put the pieces in place.
Obviously no plot is smooth sailing, we’ll get to the complications, but in theory we have the problem that needs solving and we have to take our reader along the line to each of the stations. What the stations are depends upon the story we’re writing and the personalities of the characters we’re writing. For instance, although Spiderman is technically a vigilante he’s unlikely to commit a morally dubious act unless there are extreme circumstances and even then it’s iffy because he’s a hero. Whereas a criminal, such as in Ocean’s Eleven, would probably be far more willing to commit an act that is more than morally dubious to solve their problem. We may also have a difference in the sense that our character might be a ‘character of action’ who sees what needs to be done and does it or they might be reticent to act and dither around until they have to act because they’ve proved to themselves that they can do nothing else. For example Aragon/Strider in Lord of the Rings, is a leader who sees what they need to do to save the day and acts on it. Whereas Hamlet from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet dodges the issue of revenge, debating the moral quandaries and constantly searching for ‘proof’ before he acts until he runs out of options other than acting.
Based on character and story we might be able to make a checklist the characters need to complete to solve the problem (this doesn’t have to be a plan it could be points we notice looking back on the finished first draft). This list of things the characters need to do are the plot points. If we were writing an adventure we might end up with a list that says we: gather our allies, hone our skills, sharpen our weapons and attack the problem, which make up our main plot points.
Except it’s never that easy…