Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Plot

Plot is what happens in a story, as in the series of events that create (hopefully) a pattern of progression leading to a conclusion in the story. To examine it further, let’s break it down to the basic building blocks of a story. A character has a problem. Obstacles get in the way of him/her addressing the problem. The major obstacle is presented by the antagonist, either consciously or unconsciously. The journey, the progression of steps the protagonist undertakes to address this problem is the plot. Usually, these steps take place in scenes (“scenes” are located actions, or actions that take place in specific, defined locations. These locations might be described thoroughly or partially, depending on their relevance to the plot).

As the series of actions progresses, the plot traditionally intensifies. Tension helps keep the reader interested in a story, but it’s not the only thing that does so. (Also, there are certain stories in which the plot doesn’t intensify. This is a kind of experiment, done purposefully, and is often less fulfilling for many readers. Basically, in these instances, the tension of the story comes from the experiment, not the plot.) By tension, I mean the obstacles the protagonist faces become more difficult to overcome. At the same time, the protagonist’s need to address the problem also intensifies. This is also called Rising Action. (The tension comes for the reader in the question of whether the protagonist will be able to overcome these obstacles and address his/her problem.) As the plot intensifies, as the protagonist’s efforts intensify, the plot rises to an ending, a conclusion which is surprising but inevitable.

Traditionally, going back to Aristotle, the accepted form of a plot is one that has three parts: a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning, the protagonist is introduced. In the middle, the problem is introduced and the protagonist struggles with the obstacle/s. Finally, in the end the protagonist reaches some conclusion with his/her problem, and we have the resolution. The more recent structure we’re probably all familiar with from film and the like is the five act structure, which is similar to Aristotle’s form but more developed. The most familiar version of this is probably the ABDCE form: Action, so we begin en media res (“in the middle”). Think of a horror movie which opens with the monster dispatching some unlucky, fornicating teenagers. B is for Backstory, which gives the reader some information on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story. Development reveals the problem the protagonist must overcome and moves him/her towards it. Climax is when things come to a head. This is when the protagonist faces the final obstacle and either overcomes or doesn’t or…some variation thereof. This leaves us with the Ending. This is our denouement in which the story is essentially over, but things have to be wrapped up. Maybe there are some small plot threads that need to be resolved. Maybe the reader would just like to know what happens next. These are just basic forms that might get you thinking about structure; don’t feel obliged to follow them. Bear in mind that especially the ABDCE form is very common, and therefore predictable. There are many variations on structure. Basically, the story often determines its own structure, but knowing the basics can help with that.

4 Common Problems with Plot:

1. There is none. The piece is a character study with no rising action. This means that the protagonist lacks clear motivation, so there’s no problem to overcome, or the importance of the problem isn’t spelled out. There is also likely no antagonist representing a clear obstacle. This can be subtle; the protagonist’s need to overcome whatever obstacle just might not be clearly explained.

2. There’s too much. The piece is all action with no introspection, so the reader doesn’t get a clear understanding of the characters beyond basic human drives. I can’t help but think of action movies, whose characters are usually flat. Die Hard is a good example of an action movie that avoids this, however; John McClane is a cop, so when the terrorists take over the building, he’s compelled to act. Also, he’s having some marriage problems, so the fact that his wife is held hostage is another huge problem for him. These ideas are developed throughout the movie, so even though we end up with an over-the-top explode-a-rama, we still have an idea who the main character actually is. Of course, on the flipside, I can’t help but think of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels in which characters might stop in the middle of a battle to discuss historical war strategies, which is, of course, absurd and breaks the rising tension. (And then one of them steps on a twig when trying to be sneaky…)

3. The actions/obstacles veer from a true progression towards the conclusion. This means there are unnecessary and distracting elements in the story which take the reader away from the protagonist’s struggle with the obstacle. The Shaggy Dog Story is an example of this, in which a lot of information is given but it doesn’t really add up to a story. This tends to be an unpleasant read. Of course, the greatest, most successful example of this would probably be Laurence Sterne’s epic, hilarious The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is a post-modern novel written before modernism in which the narrator attempts to share his life’s story but never gets beyond the age of four or so due to his constant digressions. In these digressions, he manages to thoroughly characterize his family and several neighbors, and manages the whole thing with a great deal of humor. I give this example to demonstrate that any rule of writing is meant to be broken, but it must be broken very well to pay off.

4. Something’s missing. Finally, the progression isn’t complete. The reader is unsure how we got to this point in the story. I could list any number of action movies as examples of this, again. One common version of this form is the Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the Machine.” (This refers back to the descent of a god in Greek tragedies—the god descended from a machine onto the stage to solve whatever problem was happening on stage). This is a story in which we have all this buildup, and then suddenly, from nowhere, a character comes in and solves all the problems at the last minute, which means that everything we’ve been reading up to this point has been unnecessary, i.e. pointless. This tends to piss off the reader.

Tips for Plot:

1. Don’t force it but don’t forget it.
-Try to let the plot develop naturally but don’t forget that the reader appreciates there being a plot.

2. Outline after the fact.
-This can help, once you’ve finished a draft, to make sure there aren’t any extraneous scenes or missing scenes. Many writers will jot an outline before they write, and that’s fine if that’s how you work. Most writers then ignore that outline while they actually write, preferring to let the story develop naturally. Going back after you’ve finished a draft and just jotting down a quick list of scenes and what they accomplish can help with revision.

3. Complications
-An enjoyable story needs complications (obstacles) but these shouldn’t be forced. They should also be paced so that they are satisfying for the reader. Trivial complications will feel forced, whereas too strong of a complication too soon can come off as overwhelming.

4. The conclusion should be surprising but inevitable.
This is a little harder to define. The ending should be inevitable because you’ve been building to it the entire story, but it should also still be somewhat surprising because it isn’t totally obvious. If there’s truly something at stake for the protagonist, then his/her final decision/action could, theoretically, “go either way.” Again, this is a difficult concept to state clearly, but it’s important for the ending to be satisfying.

-CL Bledsoe

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