If you want to read only 1 book focused on creative writing, my suggestion is Stein on writing (Sol Stein). He says: “If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience”. And he clearly explains these principles.
Thwarting Desire: The Basis of Plotting
The main one in my opinion is the one he calls “thwarting desire”. Creating characters driven by needs and wants is the key for an intriguing plot, and the more urgent is the want, the greater will be the reader’s interest. The wants must be important, necessary and urgent. There must be a clash of wants which also the reader must perceive as important, because this way he can identify with the character. Some examples of good wants are the gaining or losing of love, achieving a lifetime ambition, making justice, saving a life, vengeance, or doing something that seemed impossible.
If you want to check if the want is important enough, you can ask yourself if it leads to unhappiness, injury or death, if it is about something that values, or an important decision. The clash must seem inevitable and not caused by coincidences. It must involve the most important thing for the character, and possibly surprise the reader with something he hasn’t expected (even better: with the opposite of what he expected).
And then you need to keep the reader’s interest, for example forcing the character to stay with someone he hates, or forcing him in an embarrassing environment, or involving a character’s fear (even better if it’s generated from small things), or a change in relationships, or surprising the reader with something unexpected, with a new obstacle, with a change in circumstances. It’s pretty easy to follow this rule: just ask yourself where you think a situation will lead, and then do the opposite.
A very good way of creating the scenes that form the plot is described by Stein in the “actors studio method”: basically you give two different scripts to your characters without them knowing the other script. For example one is the headmaster of a school where an incorrigible boy has finally been expelled after not responding to the warnings of his teachers and doesn’t want to take him back under no condition; the other is the mother of a first-class student who has been wrongly targeted by the headmaster. This is what happens in real life: every person has a different script (intent) and that’s why there is conflict.
Another way to create the plot is using a “crucible”: the motivation for the characters to continue their conflict is stronger than the motivation to leave.
Keeping the reader reading
The suspense is another very important element for the plot: the curiosity for the reader to discover what happens next must be stronger than the need to do something else than read. Suspense means “to hang”, and the writer is the hangman: he is not the rescuer, he has no compassion, he must leave the character hanged for as long as possible as save him as late as possible. The reader must want something to happen, and that thing doesn’t happen. He wants to stop something that is happening, and you don’t stop this thing.
“The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly”, exacerbating the reader’s need for a resolution.
Examples of situations that cries for a resolution: a prospective danger, an actual immediate danger, an unwanted confrontation (maybe wanted by one character and unwanted by the other), the return of an old fear, a crisis which requires action.
The writer’s duty: not removing the prospective danger, not removing the danger without introducing a bigger one, holding off the unwanted confrontation as long as possible, making the fear even worse than expected, the action backfires and the crisis is prolonged.
The reader is interested in the scenes, not what happens between the scenes, and you have to remove the weak ones. Don’t drive the reader where he wants to go, create more than one lines of suspense. Short chapters create a good pace, but if they are shorter than 3 pages they don’t engage the reader. The chapters should finish with an unresolved trouble.
And finally, the tension. Writers are troublemakers, their job is to give readers stress, strain and pressure. Tension must last for a short amount of time: suspense can last the whole book. Create a sudden stress and the reader will love it, he will feel excited. “Sudden” doesn’t mean that you will quickly solve the conflict: the conflict created by the tension can last the whole book. Actually, it’s better to put it in the book as soon as possible. Example of situations which create tension: a dangerous work (with a child looking!), the approach of a deadline, an unfortunate meeting, an opponent trapped in a closed environment. And add one tense moment to another to raise the degree of tension toward a climax.