If you’re writing fiction, you need a plot, dynamic characters, action, conflict, plausible dialogue, and a resolution (even if you are writing serially).
With regards to plot, you need an introduction, or Act I, where the primary characters (including all of the suspects in a crime story), the initial setting, and the main conflict are revealed. Too much backstory can put the reader to sleep. Not enough backstory means the reader is confused. One good way to reveal backstory is through a short vignette, where a microcosm of the story is told through a brief incident that reveals something important about a primary character. The brief scene in the original Tim Burton Batman, where young Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot by the young Joker–who says the Joker catch phrase to the boy before running off–is a great example of this kind of tease. In James Cameron’s Avatar, the uncut version (Blue Ray) shows a much longer introduction, where Jake is seen fighting, despite his wheelchair, and the viewer is shown scenes of planet Earth engulfed in smoke and devoid of greenery. This was cut for the theatrical version, where instead Jake simply says the Earth is devoid of greenery. Pick your battles.
The second part of the plot is the action, the meat of the story, or Act II. A story where the good guy swoops in and whoops on the bad guy is boring. It might make a decent Vine or YouTube video, but it doesn’t make for a good novel or movie. The hero has to suffer, lose, get embarrassed, and his or her story has to have stress and woe. Otherwise, the reader or viewer might not feel sympathetic. The hero’s hopes and dreams have to be dashed in the second act. It’s like pulling the rubber band as far back as you can. It stretches, it moans, it hurts, and you know something’s going to give soon.
The third act is where the hero finds a way to overcome the conflict, the bad guy, the negative situation. In Steven Spielberg’s Always, the third act is where Dorinda faces her greatest fear, flies into the heart of the forest fire, and then, with Pete’s help, she ditches the damaged plane and swims to the surface. Pete lets her finally go, and is free to move on to the next phase of existence.
When you finish your first draft, give your book a few days to cool. Then read over it and make notes (I use Excel) about your plot points. Are you following the three-act structure? Does your story reveal information in a way that makes sense to the reader? Is your plot pace variable, or does it march predictably?
These are some of the many things I look for when I edit my clients’ books. I want them to sing and shine. I want readers to eat up my clients’ books and beg for more.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, because your book deserves an extra dose of awesome!