Secrets of the Plot
The one overriding principle you have to remember when creating a blockbuster of a plot is to avoid randomness. A good story is a chain of events, and each link in the chain is bound to other links (otherwise it isn't a chain!). This is worth repeating - whether it is an event, a character or place name, or a motivation, think it through and create it for a reason, not randomly. Keep asking yourself 'why'. Your readers will certainly be doing the same, and if you have created it with a logical reason behind it, they will accept it, no matter how implausible it may actually be. Done correctly, this way of plotting will also steer the reader firmly towards the climax, and this, of course, is important if you want to write a 'page turner' bestseller novel.
Most plots are based on the idea of the character under pressure. Your hero has a problem, and how he/she solves it IS the story. You must always be careful to keep the character 'in character'. For example, if your hero is a violent vigilante, he probably doesn't solve the ultimate puzzle using his flower-arranging skills. Unless, of course, you have already prepped the reader by explaining, for example, that the hero's zen teacher helped him control his violent temper with Japanese flower-rituals... You can automatically create consistent character outlines at www.GetPlotted.com with just 1 click of a button. And you can keep on clicking till the character is perfect for your purposes!
You want your audience to empathize with your character. If you can't achieve this, you at least want them to understand the character. In the example above, revealing a traumatic childhood event may help the reader understand why the hero is a violent vigilante, even if they still don't truly empathize with him). The character's motivations, therefore, are prime. If the reader doesn't believe or accept the motivations you expose, they won't believe the character either, and you are wasting your time. No real motivation turns your drama into melodrama.
There is even a case for claiming that the plot of a top novel is the sum of the subplots of all the characters in it. The interplay between the individual existences of the characters is what moves plot forward. In terms of starting a plot, the rule of thumb is to begin as close to the climax as possible. In other words, there can be lots of 'history' before the story begins that can be revealed to the reader as the actual plot unfolds. The Lord Of The Rings is a classic example - the history of the story extends several thousand years before the opening scene. You also want to begin on an 'inciting incident'. A 'big bang' if you will, from which the plot stems. Bilbo giving Frodo the Ring in LOTR is such an inciting incident. This 'foreshadowing' is vitally important when writing a good plot. Anything important MUST be foreshadowed, be it a character, an event or location. Some writers go so far as to claim that the entire first half of a book is foreshadowing - a prophecy of what is to come in the second half of the book. The second half, of course, is the fulfillment of the prophecy. If you randomly introduce 'solutions' without foreshadowing simply to solve problems you have created, you will lose your audience fast.
Having said that, you must be subtle. If you give too much warning of what's coming, the reader will get bored. The standard way of doing this is to de-stress the importance of what you are foreshadowing so that when the surprise comes, the reader isn't totally 'gob-smacked'. And by the way, if the characters in the story can't see it coming, but your readers can, you may lose them.
That word - surprise - is important in good plotting. You should keep your reader guessing to some extent until you reveal a solution, and then the reader should be left with a 'doh' moment - an understanding that you gave him all the clues he needed and he STILL didn't see it coming. The '6th Sense' movie is a classic example of this. By the end, and final twist, everyone in the cinema had a 'doh' moment, because with HINDSIGHT it was obvious what was going on. Roughing out the plot with the unique Plot Cards (tm) system at www.GetPlotted.com will help you get the speed of the action right, as well as easily organize your idea into a consistent logical and readable structure. Setting the right pace will also help keep your readers in a mild sense of info-overload, so that surprises are easier to spring on them even though you have foreshadowed properly.
The role of the hero in your plot develops over time. At some stage, the hero must assert control (even in, for example, a tragedy, where the hero dies, the very death should be an act of control - the ending of 'Leon' is a prime example of this). Generally, the hero must be 'roused' i.e. he/she is subject to events at first but then is roused to take charge and asset control over events. The moment when the hero starts to take control is known as a 'counterthrust', and there may be many of them in a good plot as hero and villain struggle for control. A good scene will present some problem or obstacle for the hero, and how he solves it determines whether your reader goes on to read the next chapter. The solving of these challenges is the counterthrust. Often, a good plot features a problem, a counterthrust which fails, and then a new attempt to resolve the issues using the lessons learned.
Plots also server an ancillary purpose. The events that unfold should express some aspect of the character's personality, they should reveal something about our heros and villains to us. By putting your character under stress with plot, your characters come alive, with the opportunity to show bravery, resourcefulness, and all the other human traits. And this final tip is worth re-reading - if you give your characters characteristics without expressing them through plot, it is as meaningless to your reader as some braggart in a bar claiming to be a 'kung fu expert'. Believability is the condensation of characterization via plot consistency. Ignore that at your peril!