Notes on Plot (pt 2 and 3 of 3)

For the intro, see part one below. I’m going to move on to models for thinking about plot in this and the next post. All of these can be applied to either internal or external plot.

Model 1-Plot, what, why how: Plot is confusing in part because when writers and readers talk about it, they’re talking about several different things, and we rarely differentiate explicitly.

Plot the what, plot the why, and plot the how. Very often we focus on plot the what, the sequence of events that take us from the beginning of a story to the end, and talk about it in great detail.

The what of plot can be anything and everything and is easy to overthink and to worry about to distraction.

The why of plot is the most important thing for the writer to think about. And, fortunately, it’s much simpler. Why do the things in a story happen? Fiction is the art of crafting stories with a purpose. That purpose can be as simple as crafting a ripping yarn, or as complex as, well, pretty much anything you can conceive of.

The key to a well plotted story is mapping the why onto the what. The how follows naturally after that. Why are you telling the story? What do you want out of the story? Once you have an idea of that you can move on to the how.

In my case, the why is usually built around wanting people to come see my cool world. I decide what parts of the world I want to show off. Where in the world can I place the story for maximum tourist advantage? Then I map out a loose path through the set, and start thinking about what sort of character would follow that path, which leads me to conflict and another way to think about plot.

A note on cost: There is no plot without cost. If the characters in your story don’t have to give anything up (cost) there is no tension, and so no story.

Model 2-Plot as conflict: One writer, (sadly, I can’t remember who) said that all you need to know for plot is “things get worse.” Anytime in the story when you don’t know what comes next, make things worse. Done well, this is true enough. Done wrong, it becomes “hit the bird.” (Disney’s Alladin. Don’t know what to do, hit the bird.) As I said, done right it works. Things keep getting worse for your Protagonist until the end when they get better.

I prefer to think in terms of conflict. Plot is getting from point a to point b with the maximum amount of interesting and appropriate mayhem (conflict) in between. Your character wants or needs something (internal vs. external) and chooses to try or is forced to try to get it or to get away from having to get it. How that plays out, and what he or she loses or gains along the way is plot. This is a sort of hero’s journey model.

Model 3-Plot as conflict part B; internal vs. external: In most fantasy fiction you will have a protagonist and an antagonist, or hero and villain. In conflict type B, the conflict and plot are driven by the opposing needs of the hero and the villain, remembering always that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. This leads us back to internally vs. externally driven plots.

Model 4-Plot as motion: In normal life, long periods go by without anything of significance happening. In fiction everything is a significant happening, or should be. If it doesn’t move the story somehow, it probably shouldn’t be in the text. In plot as motion we start at a point of stasis, or immediately after a point of stasis has been destabilized. The story then revolves around getting to a new point of stasis which involves motion through the world and through time. Attempts to halt or redirect the flow of motion create the conflict necessary to interesting story-telling.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 31 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)