The great writers make it all seem quite simple. Take John le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell). When the writer Kate Weinberg interviewed the master spy novelist and they started talking about writing, she confessed to having problems with the novel she was working on:
The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story…
Cornwell’s solution was elegant in its simplicity:
“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”
It’s all about motivation in other words. Why did the cat sit on the dog’s mat? What does the dog feel about the mat? And so on. Once you know why your characters are doing or want to do something, tangling them up in a plot can be somewhat second nature.