The Plot Thickens: Plotting for Beginners
Welcome to our discussion on plots and plotting. I don't know how many times I've seen a writer sit down before a blank page and work on an introduction to a tale with only the vaguest idea of where the tale will take him (or her—but we will use one or the other from this point on with no concern for PC.) He relies on that mythical muse we read about in romanticized accounts of the writing life. The characters will take him where he needs to go, right?
Wrong. Stories need structure. Unless we sit down and work out the route of our tale before we put one word on that page, we are likely to meander about, drifting aimlessly or detour far from the point. Or we get bogged down in "perfecting" a section, trying to convince ourselves we are making progress. What we need is a map.
A Map for a Short Story
The short story follows a simple form, with a beginning, a middle that builds interest and tension, a climax and an ending. It answers the question all recipients of stories want satisfied: What happened next? That is assuming our story is interesting enough to elicit that desire.
The Check-Mark Form of Storytelling
What Is a Plot?
Here’s a plot for a story:
Dick and Jane, two young people from the upper middle class, equal in class origins, intelligence, compatible in their dreams for the future meet in college and fall in love. Their parents are content with their choice of spouses, and furthermore like each other and become fast friends. Dick and Jane get married and have the requisite two children, both of whom grow up without major difficulties, do well in school, enter a profession and enjoy success, later choosing ideal spouses and providing much beloved grandchildren. Our couple lives in harmony until the day both of them die within minutes of each other, and are buried side by side in the local cemetery surrounded by their loved ones.
Yes, this is a plot, but even in this condensed version the reader could care less, is certainly not enticed to read further, and probably had trouble reading these few sentences without yawning. While all of this may have been of interest to Dick and Jane, we find it bland, uninteresting and somewhat tedious, not the stuff of novels.
What Is Missing?
Conflict and Resolution
Facing a problem, or in the case of a novel, a series of problems, events build up to a climax and drop softly into happily ever after. Without problems and obstacles, we have no reason to tell our story. After all, our story is usually a description of the problems facing our characters, the conflict between characters or our character and another element, and the eventual resolution of those difficulties. Without conflict, there is no story. Isn’t conflict part of the basic human condition?
The following “check mark” story form is the standard basis for the short story, and also holds true to the plot of a novel, though a novel will have layers of conflicts and resolutions overlying the basic plot.
I borrowed this from the excellent book Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, a text used in one of the many writing classes I’ve taken. As I’m a cheapskate and bought the cheapest paperback edition available, the text printed on the next page shows through, but the information is still clear.
Anyway, the example used here is the classic Cinderella story, which follows the check-mark form perfectly. One picture, they say, is worth more than a thousand words (though writers may resist admitting it) so look at the graphic below which should answer any questions forming in your mind after reading this.
A Novel of the Same Form, but More Complex
The basic plot for a novel will follow our check-mark form, but in order to carry the tale for 120,000 words versus the 5-10,000 words of the short story, our basic conflict must be presented in installations.
Here is a plot for a novel:
Dick, son of recent immigrants who worked hard to put their son through college but still live in a tiny house on the wrong side of the tracks, meets Jane, daughter of an ‘old money’ family who arrived on the Mayflower and entirely due to the hard work of industry baron ancestors live in a gracious estate in a rarified and wealthy enclave. They fall in love and want to get married. Both parents are against the marriage for entirely opposing reasons, and Jane’s parents vow there will be no financial assistance to her if she marries Dick. The two sets of parents meet and loathe each other. Dick and Jane marry anyway, and after years of struggle and sacrifice, they find themselves in a middle class home with the requisite two children, a boy with health issues and girl given to running wild who ends up pregnant at fifteen. Though the couple works hard to overcome these difficulties, the love that brought them together begins to fray under the strain, and Dick forms a relationship with his much younger secretary and believes himself in love. The secretary, Sally, becomes pregnant and Dick is torn between loyalty to his first family and a need to do the right thing by Sally. Eventually, Dick chooses to start a new life with Sally, but it isn’t long before this new relationship wears thin due to the age difference and Sally’s inability to provide the kind of home life to which Dick is accustomed. He regrets his choice, but thinks there is nothing he can do to change his circumstance and vows to make the best of things. Jane who has found a fulfilling job, petitions for divorce. Sally has a miscarriage, and is fed up with Dick’s criticisms and runs off with Billy, a young man her own age. At the divorce hearing, Dick realizes the extent of the mistake he made, and admits it to Jane. Jane, still in love with her husband, listens and in a romantic scene of a great dinner and Dick’s opening up to Jane for the first time in years, followed by torrid sex, they make up and live happily ever after.
Now, How Are We Going to Write This Story?
As you note, told here in linear form it is somewhat boring. We are not going to write this out in dull narration, first, this happened, and then that happened—telling the reader. No! We are going to divide this up into scenes and write those scenes showing and sharing with the reader.
I like to divide my story into ten main scenes (and several minor ones that lead up to the main scene) and our new map will look something like the graph below, borrowed from the book The Writer’s little Helper, by James V. Smith, Jr., who I was once fortunate to meet at a writing workshop I attended and he led.
You still see the basic check-mark form, but now it is replicated in a small descend, great ascend, small descend, even greater ascend pattern, so that our plot is always increasing in tension, conflict and dropping occasionally into resolution.
You note certain terms here:
- setup of the problem: Dick and Jane meet, fall in love but the disparity in their backgrounds provide obstacles.
- pivotal set-up complication: They marry anyway; Jane must sacrifice her family; Dick must prove himself worthy of her sacrifice
- point of no return: They enjoy a successful life but strain in their love appears.
- complications 4,5,6,7,8: These scenes show the difficulties and strain of home life, Dick's emotional estrangement from Jane, Dick's tryst with Sally, Sally's pregnancy, the deterioration of the new love nest, Sally's new attachment to Billy, Jane's petition for divorce,
- and 9 the climax: the divorce hearing where Dick realizes the folly of his actions, his plea to Jane and Jane's acceptance and the torrid sex scene.
- end stuff: the difficulties of adjustment back in the marital home, resolution: forgiveness and acceptance and happily ever after.
You'll notice I haven't addressed the son's health problems, the daughter's rebellion, wild behaviour and just deserts or anything to do with Sally's life, feelings, miscarriage and eventual feelings for Billy.
These are subplots, stories connected to our main plot but not really part of it. Our main plot is the story between Dick and Jane. However, we map them out in the same manner, and weave them into our main plot. We'll talk more about subplots and backplots (things that happened prior to our story we need to know) in a later hub. For now, it is enough to know how they are handled—in the same manner.
We need to take our storyline and divide it into the scenes we intend to use. In our next hub, we will take our Dick, Jane and Sally plot and apply these rules, an active demonstration of plotting. For now, consider only we work out what scenes will best display our tale to the reader, sketch them out and assign them major, minor or supporting status and with these we build our map. We work with our main plot first, and our subplots second.
Now, our map will look something like the graph below. (Again borrowed from Mr. Smith's fine book.) In this graph we see those scenes we consider pivotal, that is the most important, the ones in which we must use our greatest skills.
Developing Scene Structure
Each of Our Scenes Should Be a Short Story
Each scene needs to follow the basic form of a short story in that we have a beginning, a middle a climax and a resolution—with the resolution leading into the next scene. Sometimes writers like to use the “cliffhanger approach,” leaving the reader in suspense until the tale is picked up in the next related scene. This can work well in many situations, but overuse will annoy the reader. No one likes to be left hanging. In the cliffhanger, what we have done is taken a scene and divided it—taken part of the scene and moved it further along to the next.
When writing the cliffhanger, it is good practice to complete the scene through to resolution, and splitting it after. This is usually accomplished by injecting an element of a subplot—the story of another character, the ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ technique, prior to the resolution of the original.
If we were to chart the end result of one scene as a short story followed by another, we would see our checkmarks following one after the other, we hope, on an ascending line of tension and pacing. Here is how the plot of a novel would be graphed on our plot line:
As each scene or chapter has its own climax point, there are many different approaches we may take, placing the climax at the beginning, the middle or the end. And remember, variety is the spice of life. Don't structure your scene stories all in the same manner. Shake it up. Repetition is deadly dull. The one to avoid is the following:
This scene has no ascent of conflict to a climax or drop to resolution, therefore no story structure and is likely to be boring and dull. Remember the check mark, (however distorted) and avoid flat-line writing. Ascent of conflict can be created through situation, action, dialogue and pacing but must reach a peak—somewhere. A tricky approach to scene structure is this one:
At first glance, one might think this the resolution of a previous cliffhanger, but no, remember we've already decided those are one scene later divided by elements of another, and it will work much better if you write it that way—trust me. Continuity is of primary importance.
No, this approach is dangerous but can be pulled off provided the resultant resolution is interesting, vivid and above all short. After all, we don't want a high-energy start that drones off into a tedious, never-ending scene of no impact Best leave this one alone until you're sure you can pull it off. (And even the best of writers need to use a descending checkmark of little "climaxes.) The most commonly used story structure for scenes is the following:
A scene with elements leading to a peak in the middle, followed by a gentle drop into a detailed and satisfying resolution to the conflict is what most writer's hope to accomplish. This is our classic check mark, leaving lots of room for a detailed, interesting, vividly written let down and set up for the next scene—unless it is the final scene. Another strong pacing technique is the scene like this one, most effectively used in those scenes leading up to climax scene:
This is not to be confused with the cliffhanger, which, at the risk of nagging I repeat, we've decided is actually a split scene. This is the approach to use when the resolution is apparent to the reader, or we plan to leave the reader with a big question to ponder, or we require a very strong finish which incorporates climax and resolution in one. Example:
"No more," he shouted, and pushed back his chair. "This is it!"
He slammed the door on his way out, and the dull thud echoed his resolve never to return.
The curtain falls and our climax is also our resolution.
A Word on Openings and Closings and the Stuff in Between
The opening scene is your introduction to the dance, and you must frame your invitation in your most engaging, polished and interesting manner, or you'll receive at best a polite 'no thanks' and at worst a 'get lost.' You'll find yourself spending the evening against the wall, unless you capture interest in the first thousand words.
What is the requirement of the opening scene?
We introduce our characters, set our stage and provide the information our readers need to understand the plot. We want action from the first word, and we don't want a long winded set up. We need the necessary information provided as part of the story, not a biography inserted to stop the action. We need to grab the reader's attention from the first word and keep him asking "What happened next?" until the end.
We build our story in installments, a continuous series of ascending rises in conflict, climax and resolution, leading to the apex the "big climax" and a drop through the resolution that leaves us with answers to our questions and an understanding of our characters actions and decisions.
One note, don't add new characters or situations, nothing new from the scene prior to the apex through to the closing. It is foul play to introduce someone hitherto unknown to us to solve our dilemma—a cheap trick.
What is the requirement of the closing scene?
Many new writers have a tendency to rush the closing. They accomplish a mighty climactic scene, and run to the finish line. This is the time to slow the pace, tie up loose ends and bid a gentle and gracious goodbye to the characters. And, if we've done our job well, our readers will close the book with a mix of feelings—what a great read and I wonder what happened next.
A Summary of the Mechanics of Plotting
I hope this clarifies the mechanics of plotting, In our next discussion, we will go through the mapping and scene structure of a plot, and this should clear up any questions now in your mind, but by all means, feel free to pose them in the comments section.
What have we covered today?
- in order to write a story, we need a map leading us to our destination.
- plots are built following a structure of opening(exposition), conflict and resolution.
- the basic story structure is the checkmark form.
- the basic plot of a novel follows this checkmark form but is told in installations, in scenes all of which are mini short stories on their own, with openings, middle stuff, climax and resolution.
- the plot progresses in ever-ascending checkmarks.
- the opening scene is all-important and must grab the reader's attention.
- the scenes build to an apex, the climax of the story.
- the closing falls to a point just below our start in the opening scene, in which we tie up loose ends, bid goodbye to our characters and satisfy the reader's curiosity.
- nothing new should enter our story from just prior to the climax until the end.
- subplots are storylines connected to our main plot, but separate and are mapped in the same way as our main plot and woven into our story.
And in review of previous articles:
- Let yourself write shitty first drafts
- Know your destination
- Good stories are constructed, not dished out by the muse.
- Know your characters before you begin writing.
- Keep your characters real.
- Present your characters in direct methods.
- Stay active
- Show and share, don't tell and describe
- Keep your own voice out of the story.
- Let your characters do the work.
So, get plotting.