THE COMMON DEFINITION OF PLOT is that it’s whatever happens in a story. That’s useful when talking about completed stories, but when we’re considering stories being written, it’s about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn’t tell you how to make one.
Plot is built of significant events in a given story – significant because they have important consequences. Taking a shower isn’t necessarily a plot, or braiding one’s hair, or opening a door. Let’s call them incidents. They happen, but they don’t lead to anything much. No important consequences.
But if the character is Rapunzel, and the hair is what’s going to let the prince climb to her window, braiding her hair is a crucial action. If the character is Bluebeard’s newest wife, opening the forbidden door which reveals the corpses of her predecessors is a pivotal point. Taking a shower is, in Psycho, considerably more dramatic and shocking than the theft of a large sum of money, both in itself and in terms of its later repercussions. By the way they’re weighted and presented, by what they lead to, these events are transformed from incident to plot.
A grammar school play in which a little girl dresses up in a frame of chickenwire and canvas to portray a ham, representing Pork, could be trivial, a mere incident; but in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the chickenwire costume is what prevents Scout Finch from being stabbed by a man with a murderous grudge against her lawyer father.
The wearing of the costume has important consequences and makes a meaningful difference in the story’s fictional world. It’s a cause that has significant effects. Cause and effect: that’s what makes plot.
The Border of Actuality
Plot is the things characters do, feel, think, or say, that makes a difference to what comes afterward.
If you once thought about dying your hair pink but never acted on that thought, that tells something about your psychology, but it’s not a potential story plot. If you went ahead and did it, that not only tells about your psychology but creates repercussions, like a stone tossed in a pond. That might become the basis for a story like Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
Thought or emotion crosses the line into plot when it becomes action and causes reactions. Until then, attitudes, however interesting in themselves, are just potential, just cloudy possibilities. They’re static. They’re not going anywhere. Nothing comes of them.
No thought, in and of itself, is plot. No action, however dramatic, is plot if the story would have been about the same if it hadn’t happened at all. Any action, however seemingly trivial, can be vital and memorable if it has significant consequences and changes the story’s outcome.
Plotting is a way of looking at things. It’s a way of deciding what’s important and then showing it to be important through the way you construct and connect the major events of your story. It’s the way you show things mattering.
What’s at Stake?
For a reader to care about your story, there has to be something at stake – something of value to gain, something of value to be lost. Paul Boles, in his book Storycrafting, called it “wrestling,” and I like that image because, unlike “theme” or “message,” it doesn’t imply something that could be painted on a billboard or winkled out of a fortune cookie. Wrestling is something specific happening: two strong forces are meeting, one of them triumphing over the other – for better or worse.
One of the forces may be external to the main character (protagonist): a villain, an opponent, a set of circumstances, a feature of the environment or of the landscape. Or both forces may be within the protagonist: the fear of doing something wrestling with the need to do it; a sense of injury wrestling with love or admiration, as with a person of any age trying to come to terms with a demanding parent.
Bringing out the importance of seemingly small things leads to subtlety, drama; showing large things grappling and clashing is melodrama, of which more in Chapter 7.
You have to convince the reader not that something is happening, but that what’s happening matters intensely – not just to the writer, but to the characters involved.
In Golding’s Lord of the Flies, what’s at stake is survival itself. A group of boys are trying to stay alive, solely by their own efforts, on an otherwise uninhabited tropical island. At least, that’s the external form of their struggle. Internally, it’s the battle between fear and courage, distrust of the unknown and the will to find out, as played out within individual characters like the protagonist, Ralph; visionary Simon; and Jack, leader of the hunters. It’s not only survival at stake, but a particular, civilized kind of survival.
In other words, there can be an outer plot and an inner one which in some sense mirrors and reinforces it, or conflicts and contrasts with it. Or either outer plot or inner plot may stand alone as the main focus of the necessary struggle played out in actions, through scenes.
MAKING A SCENE
If you’ve been to a writer’s conference or a creative writing class, or if you’ve read any books on fiction writing, you’ve already heard the major principle that older writers are always telling young writers: SHOW, DON’T TELL. As I hope I’ve shown (and maybe told, a little: but this isn’t fiction), it’s an important concept that’s very risky not to take very seriously indeed.
Showing, in fiction, means creating scenes. You have to be able to cast your ideas in terms of something happening, people talking and doing, an event going on while the reader reads. If you’re not writing scenes, you may be writing fine essays, or speeches, or sermons – but you’re not writing fiction.
A definition: A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It seems to happen just as if a reader were watching and listening to it happen. It’s built on talk and action. It’s dramatized, show, rather than being summarized or talked about. In some ways, it’s like a little independent story; some short stories, in fact, are all one single scene.
A scene isn’t a random stretch of action. It arises for a reason, and it’s going somewhere. It has meaning. It has a point: at least one thing that needs to be shown or established at that spot in a story. That can be something as basic as the fact that your main character wants, this once, to walk his dog in peace without being pestered by an amorous neighbour or something as subtle as your main character’s realization that the tolerance she has prided herself on is really just a mask for indifference. Attitudes turning into motives, meeting resistance, creating conflict, and leading to consequences – becoming plot.
A scene can convey many things: moods, attitudes, a sense of place and time, an anticipation of what’s to come, a reflection of what’s past. But first and foremost, a scene must advance the plot and demonstrate the characters. You may not fully know what a given scene’s job is, whether simple or complex, until you’ve written it. You may need to go back then and cut away the things that would mislead a reader, and add things to support, lead into, and highlight that scene’s special chores in the context of the whole story. But when the story is finished, no matter how many rewrites it takes, you ought to be able to name to yourself what each scene brought out, how it developed the characters, how it showed action or led toward consequences.
Scenes can be long or short – just a paragraph, or a dozen pages or more. Creating scenes means finding ways for your story to show itself, rather than ways for you to tell it.
IS IT A FAIR FIGHT?
Your story’s scenes are going to be the specific stages by which your main character’s motivations are enacted against opposition, internal or external or both. A motivation against no opposition is boring. How somebody always got everything he wanted, succeeded in every task, won every girl in sight, and never met a comeuppance, wouldn’t have any drama. A chronicle of Don Juan’s amorous exploits would be dull (even if pornographically dull) without the avenging paternal statue to send the don gibbering off to a well-deserved damnation.
Likewise, opposition without determined contrary motivation, pure victimization, is not only dull, but depressing. This is true even when, as with Oedipus and with Romeo and Juliet, the protagonist’s motivation ultimately ends in tragedy or unsuccess. The protagonist of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” may end up becoming a part of the horror he tried to escape; Ahab may be the victim of the White Whale he so desired to destroy; but each fought all the way throught he shadows into the eventual dark.
A narrative of Dracula’s slaughters during the centuries before he met his determined and ultimately successful adversaries, Van Helsing and the thoroughly modern Mina, would be about as engrossing as feeding time at the zoo. Dracula is pure appetite, and his victims merely food, if there is no involving battle between predator and prey. Incidentally, Ann Rice’s effective reinventions of the vampire legends (the series The Vampire Chronicles) concentrate on the aspirations of the vampires themselves as individuals, and dwell very little on the neck-biting or on their victims. The resulting stories, because the vampires are the protagonists, tend to be surprisingly upbeat in spite of the implied body count.
Bambi Meets Godzilla: a Cautionary Tale
Some of you may have seen or heard about a short satirical film called Bambi Meets Godzilla. While the opening credits are rolling, we see the terminally cute little fawn nibbling and gambolling in a leafy clearing. Then a big reptilian foot comes down and squashes him. Splat. End of movie. It’s startling and funny, in a gruesome sort of way, the first time. But a whole hour of build-up, followed by that expressive splat? A whole novel, even? It would be dreadful.
Anytime you’re tempted to write a pure-victim story, in which the protagonist doesn’t have a chance, think about Bambi Meets Godzilla and try something else.
An Even Battle Is More Fun to Watch
Whether the ending is happy or unhappy in the traditional sense, any story needs to be founded on an effective and strongly-felt conflict, in which the opposing forces – whether people, ideas, attitudes, or a mix – are at least fairly evenly matched, enough so that the final outcome is in doubt. If anything, the forces opposing the protagonist ought to seem the stronger, to create drama and suspense. But not an utter mismatch.
Oedipus was doomed from the beginning; but he didn’t know it, and he was fighting all the way. The emphasis was on the fighting, not on the doom. That’s what makes the fighting, the wrestling, become engrossing narrative.
It’s been said that happy families don’t make good stories. Only unhappy families, or people who for whatever reason are discontented with their current circumstances, give rise to good fiction. If Scarlett O’Hara had easily forgotten Ashley and been rapturously married to an easily domesticated Rhett Butler early in the novel, if the Civil War hadn’t intruded to complicate their unvarying domestic bliss, if their child had grown happily into adolescence and beyond, who would want to read Gone With the Wind?
Struggle, conflict, dissatisfaction, aspiration, choice: these are the basis of effective plots.
HOW TO TEST A STORY IDEA
If you’re like most of the writers I’ve run into, you have more story ideas than you know what to do with. They’re popping into your mind faster than you can jot them down in your handy bedside notebook.
And how could it be otherwise? Things have been happening to you, and to everybody you know, all your life. You’ve been reading, and absorbing stories, almost that long. The newspapers and the evening news offer conflicts galore, and memorable people, events of apparent importance. Once you’ve been writing awhile, people will start forcing stories on you, claiming that they were always going to write them themselves but somehow never got the time. They’ll insist the stories are just the thing for your next fiction, and you may even agree with them.
There is no shortage of story ideas that might even become stories in the right hands.
Truman Capote took a news account of a brutal and apparently senseless multiple murder and developed it into the nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was reported based on an alarmingly vivid dream. I took a speculation on the nature of emotion, combined it with some unpleasant childhood memories, and found in the mix the basis for a five-book science fiction series.
Story ideas are everywhere. Finding ideas isn’t the problem.
Your problem is every writer’s problem: figuring out which, of this barrage of fragmentary ideas, is a potential story; and, even more difficult, a story you care about and can tell well.
There are four basic questions you should ask of any new story idea you come up with to decide whether or not it’s ready to be developed, or whether it needs to mature awhile longer in your notebook.
- Is It Your Story to Tell?I’m interested, I’m willing to play that game with another writer for awhile; but I don’t really care. Not about magic, anyway.I think that’s what the traditional advice to “write what you know” really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.I’m not saying that these were the most wonderful story ideas ever concocted, just that they were my stories to tell. They had a special resonance. I could imagine my way into them, from things I’ve known about, first-hand. And they had a dynamic: they seemed to be going somewhere from the first moment they came into my head. They felt as if they had little hooks built in that refused to let go until I had the whole puzzle solved, the thing written in the form it seemed to want to go into.That’s the first criterion: Is this something I really care about, something I partly understand, something that seems to want working out?
- Most often these valid, dynamic story ideas won’t be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations, not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they’ll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Explorations, not explanations.
- I’ve never been aboard a spaceship, but I’ve lived in cramped quarters, and I can project an experience I’ve known on one I’ve only imagined. So I can honestly say that I know what it could be like to be the sole crew of a one-man scout ship traveling on a long haul between the stars. And I care how it would feel: it seems worth trying to imagine yourself into. I’ve never been a serious sculptor, but I know something of the way any artist can get lost in his work – perfectly normal, experienced from the inside, but often laughably odd, observed from the outside. So I was able to write, with conviction, a story about a sculptor who carves bas-relief horses out of botched tombstones she calls “mat” and who loses track of the hours and even the days.
- And most of the ideas that come to you, from whatever source, are going to be like that. They won’t be things of profound importance to you. And if they’re not, how are you going to persuade a reader to care about them? It will all be forced, mechanical, intellectualized, unconvincing. That’s even more true if they are things you uncomfortably think you ought to care about, like cruel parents, faithless lovers, The Bomb, World Hunger, or the Heartbreak of Psoriasis.
- All ideas can’t become stories for you. I could no more write a story about magic than I could sprout wings, or roots. I’ve realized that, on some fundamental level, I don’t believe in magic. Although I heartily enjoy reading stories about witches and occult happenings, I can’t really imagine magic and don’t take it seriously, not with the fundamental seriousness needed to write convincingly.
- Is It Too Personal for Readers to Become Involved With?So the second thing you need to ask yourself, about any story idea, is whether it’s something that’s too personal, something that’s very important to you but would justifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.Personal blind spots.For such highly personal subjects, the context that would make them meaningful would just take too much explaining for somebody else to understand.But don’t underestimate your own experiences as a source of story ideas, either. Tiny, vivid impressions – the feel of new sneakers, sunlight through a coloured window, getting up in the middle of the night when it’s dark and scary, being the only pedestrian on an empty street – have been the basis of wonderful, imaginative short stories by Ray Bradbury. Coveting an overcoat was the basis of a classic story by Gogol. A chickenwire costume can be life-saving armor. Small things can have immense impact, if you give them a context that brings out their importance.You can never know this for sure. You can only recognize the problem and do your best to strike a balance between the personal and the universal. After that, the story has to take its chances, as all stories must.Dickens, in particular, was a master of this. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is another good source for precisely observed detail. Read some of these authors’ work and learn the kind of specific detail you should be observing in daily life and jotting in your notebook for later use in fiction – a face, a phrase, a scene. Sometimes the simplest, most personal things are those that can speak direct to the heart.So your second criteria should be: Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful to somebody else?The third criterion has to do with the nature of the material itself. Supposing the first two criteria have been met, is this an idea with a dynamic? Has it got an engine, or could you put one into it? You could attach a motor to a tree, but it wouldn’t go very far. A motor-powered bathtub is still a bathtub.It doesn’t matter if the actual scenes you end up writing are different from the ones you imagine at first. The important thing is that the subject you care about, the subject you think you can make immediate and important to readers, lends itself to being cast into scenes of any kind.If what you’re writing is nounish or adjectival, a thing or a description, or if it’s essentially a lecture or an essay, it’s going to be static. It may still be a story, but a relatively formless one aimed at a narrow spectrum of readers. (Nonplot methods of storytelling will be discussed in Chapter 11.) If your story happens over a period of years, with nothing much happening in between, and if you can’t see a way to compress the action into a single compact tale, even one as long as a novel, you’ll have to split out a smaller piece of it to be your story. If it involves a vast number of people or several major changes of locale, it may be a novel, but not a short story. If it’s all beginning, a problem you can show but not resolve to give the story a conclusion (even an unhappy one), it’s not going to work. If it’s a sudden turn of events that nothing seems to lead into, like lightning in the middle of a bullfight, pure ending, it won’t make satisfying reading.
- Ask yourself, Can I dramatize this in a series of scenes with a minimum of explanation? Does it have a plot, or can I create a plot for it?
- Make a poster and put it up where you write: PLOT IS A VERB.
- Does your idea divide itself into a vivid opening, one or more specific developments, and a solid ending? Can you block out in your mind a beginning scene, intermediate scenes, a final confrontation or resolution of some kind?
- Is It Going Somewhere?
- And the job of distinguishing between the merely personal and the vividly personal is one nobody can do but you.
- And always bring, to whatever you write, everything you’ve known, felt, experienced, imagined. Like Tolkien’s Elves of Lorien, put something of what you love in everything you make. If you’re cynical or want to escape sentimentality, put in something that you loathe, too. Such first-hand direct experience is the main and invaluable source of the kind of immediately convincing, personal, vivid details that flesh out a plot and make it seem real to a reader.
- Your own experience is an inexhaustible mine of fiction ideas, provided only that you can make readers see the experience as important and applicable to their own lives.
- That’s a particular problem, by the way, with autobiographical or fact-based fiction. You have to be able to distance it. You not only have to care about it but care just the right way, ruthlessly cutting this incident, changing this character, altering this reaction in the interests of good fiction, regardless of what really happened. You have to be, in some meaningful sense, free of it before you’re ready to write about it. You have to be willing to look at it through a stranger’s eyes – the eyes of your potential readers.
- It’s understandable, if mildly tedious, from people waving around pictures of their kids or wanting us to pore through snapshots from their vacations or sit through their home movies of the family washing the dog. From a writer, it’s unforgivable – and probably unpublishable.
- Some experience is too close to us. We feel deep emotion about it, but haven’t digested it yet and aren’t able to put it in perspective for somebody else to view. Or maybe it’s too exotic, like a specialist on the intimate habits of the Amazonian tree snail assuming the subject is going to be fascinating to vast numbers of people.
- The second criterion has to do with the purpose of writing. Partly, it’s self-expression. But partly – and increasingly, the more and the longer you write – it’s communication. You want what you say to reach, and move, a reader. You want to share the exploration. You want to have fun writing your story so that readers can have fun reading it. Maybe you even want it to sell, and to help you become famous. Those are valid reasons too, provided they’re not the main or the only ones. (If the results are more important to you than the process, if you don’t want to write but only to have written, you’re in trouble.)
- What’s at Stake?
Finally, ask yourself: Is there something quite specific and vital at stake – not just to me, but to one or more of the characters involved? Ask yourself what the central conflict is, the struggle that’s the basis of plot. Ask yourself how you can show, rather than tell, why this is so important to the character, make the reader understand, empathize, and care about what happens.
If you’re writing experimental or literary fiction, you can allow yourself a little more latitude about what’s at stake. It can be the impact of a memory of aesthetic ecstasy experienced in a time of artistic dryness, as in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. It can be the downward progress of a deteriorating, obsessive consciousness, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” That it’s harder to make such things seem vital issues to the general reader doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing. But neither does it mean that you can ignore the issue and just have meandering ruminations about Life and the World.
It’s quite possible to make bread with something other than crushed grain and produce food that’s tasty, nutritious, and solid enough so that you know you’ve eaten something. But whatever your fondness for carrot cake or corn muffins, it’s plain old bread, plot, that’s been part of human culture since the beginning of things. We know plot when we meet it: it’s in our bones. Maybe even in our genes. We say, “But what’s it about?” and expect a reasonably concise answer. We want verb bread or we’re sure we’ll be hungry an hour later.
Any fiction, however literary, still has to possess some dynamic tension, even if it’s one of irony, or a surprising contrast. Something has to be seen to matter, and to change – even in a mood piece. The story has to move. If you choose not to have traditional plot, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to make your chosen alternate work as compellingly.
If, however, you’re writing mainstream or genre fiction intended for a wide readership, it’s absolutely crucial that you have and develop a plot and that something quite concrete and definite be at issue. It’s what your story is going to be perceived to be “about.” Your protagonist wants to gain possession of a ruby approximately the size of New Jersey, become a first-class hockey player, escape from an unsympathetic spouse, get one word of praise from a stern and disapproving parent, or rescue turtles from the zoo and set them free in the all-forgiving sea.
Ideally, you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. In fact, it might help to study a few issues of TV Guide and one of the several paperback guides to movies on TV, and see how such capsule summaries are done. Practice writing a few about things you’ve read recently. (“The police chief of a New England vacation community, although terrified of the ocean, sets out to destroy a huge killer shark” – Jaws; “A group of British schoolboys, attempting to survive after their plane crashlands on a tropical island, begin reverting to savagery” – Lord of the Files.)
See how brief and direct you can make your summaries. The basic plot of a story (unlike its meaning) ought to be directly expressible in very few words, though playing it out in scenes may take a dozen or a thousand pages.
If the summary of your own story turns out to be one you haven’t already seen fifty times, so much the better. If not, don’t worry: all the love stories haven’t yet been written, nor anything close. And there will be growing-up stories as long as there are people. Some topics, handled in a fresh way, are inexhaustible.
READY, STEADY, GO!
If you test your ideas against these four criteria, a lot will be tossed out, or saved in your handy notebook for later. Don’t let that upset you. There are a lot more where they came from, and some of them will pass the test with bells ringing and flags flying.
All you need is one solid story idea at a time to keep writing productively, successfully, your whole life. Use these criteria and you’ll have the confidence of knowing you’re starting with thought and energy of developing, stories that have the potential of reaching readers. You’ll hardly be able to wait to start working out your ideas on paper, embodying them in scenes, listening to your characters talk.
©Dodgsons KingsWay Sanctuary, 1973.