I gave him my stock answer: torture your protagonist.
The fact is, readers don't want your hero to be happy. At least, not until the end. They want angst, conflict, ruined dreams, dashed hopes, impossible situations, neuroses, struggle, heartache, near death experiences, ruined lives, and pain.
All you need to know about plotting is twofold.
- Give your characters goals.
- Don't let them reach those goals.
For example, let's say we're writing a YA coming of age novel about a 14 year old video game geek named Leroy. His goals: kiss a girl, mend his parents' unstable marriage, and get ahold of Grand Theft Doom Craft 3: Halo and Goodbye and the new GameBox X-Station System. Let's also make his family very poor.
So how do we torture Leroy?
- His parents won't let him have the game, because it is too violent, and they can't afford it
- He asks the cutest girl in school to the dance, and she says yes, but he can't dance
- He bribes the high school bully to buy him the game and system, cashing in his bonds (which are supposed to be for college)
What happens next?
- His parents begin a trial separation
- The bully takes all of his money but doesn't buy him the game
- He needs dance lessons, but no longer has any money (the bully has it)
- His best friend gets the game, but won't let him play
- The cute girl cancels the date
- He tries to get him money back from the bully, and gets beaten up.
- The cute girl is going with the bully to the dance
- Leroy confides in his Dad, who boxed Golden Gloves in high school, and he gives him some lessons
- Leroy confides in him Mom, who shows him how to dance
How can things get worse?
- Leroy sucks as a fighter
- Leroy sucks as a dancer
- Leroy sucks as a matchmaker
- Leroy overhears that the bully is going to go 'all the way' with the cute girl after the dance, whether she wants to or not
- GTDC3:H&G is having a high score contest, and the winner gets $10000 dollars
How will this end?
Come on. You know how it's going to end.
His friend lets him finally play the new game, and Leroy gets a great score and sends it to the contest folks. Then Leroy goes to the dance stag, walks in on the bully making unwanted advances on the cute girl, cleans his clock, dances with her, gets a kiss, goes home to find out Dad has moved back in.
And, of course, the prize people show up with a check for $10000.
Or maybe the parents don't get together, and Leroy doesn't win the money, but he realizes that growing up means you don't always get what you want.
The point is, if you keep thinking "How can I make this worse?" plotting takes care of itself.
If you've ever read a book with a surprise twist, it was probably the result of the author thinking, "What would no one expect could happen next?"
If we wanted to add a twist to the story, we could have the cute girl be a secret videogame addict, and she wins the contest and gives Leroy back the money he lost to the bully. Or the Dad, in a fit of overcompensation after leaving home, buys Leroy the game system. Or the bully turns out to be Leroy's brother, because Leroy's Dad is a cheater, which is why Mom kicked him out.
And if you're truly stuck, use my tried and true Jump Start the Plot Trick: "And when I answered the door... there were zombies!"
That always works.