Via: Daily Prompt – Gratitude
Plot – one of the seven pillars (others being character, conflict, setting, theme, POV, and style) of fiction. Though harboring deceptively similar traits, it should be viewed as different from the story. However, when I first picked up the craft of fiction writing, I could not find the plot in my stories for the life of me. It was there, but I didn’t see what it was. How was it any different from the story itself? Until I came across the following pearls of wisdom from one of the most masterful storytellers of our history:
Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it…”
~ E. M. Forster
The above words of Forsters helped me put things in perspective and review my work, correct errors in my technique, and raise the value of the stories I was writing. Thankfully, not too late in my writing journey to inflict any irreparable damage to my style.
As the years wore on, I came across other educational literature, both online and within books, that helped me identify plots in stories written by others as well as formulate plots of my own. A safe bet for finding them is to look for changes that move circumstances in the story from point A to point B. Again, it requires looking for the causality that will achieve the desired resolution in the conflict introduced:
A tangible event that forces change upon the characters.
E.g. After the death of an all-knowing headmaster, a warrior-student is forced to set out on a journey with his best friends-cum-comrades to discover and destroy the objects that tether an evil wizard’s soul to Earth in order to overcome his reign once and for all. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)
A decision that changes a character’s circumstances.
E.g. A father decides to leave his post as a clergyman and removes his family to an industrial town where the daughter has to navigate the society of a new breed of working class and masters whose life force is the dignity earned through hard work, as well as butt heads with a proud but honest manufacturer whose heroics is not always apparent. (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)
Change in the relationship dynamics between characters.
E.g. A self-centered social princess who enjoys meddling in the lives of her peers out of a misguided perception that “she knows best” is only ever called out by her politically correct older step-brother but eventually realizes she enjoys his overbearing guidance and admires his integrity but is no longer confident that she is worthy of his attention. (Clueless by Amy Heckerling)
Internal change in a character.
E.g. A young woman prides herself on the accuracy of her study of characters of those around her, becomes prejudiced against an aristocratic man of natural proud bearings after being inadvertently slighted by him and hearing accusations of his misconduct against another man but eventually discovers that she allowed herself to be thoroughly misled and proceeds to witness his generosity towards those he cares for. (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
Change in reader’s perspective of the situation.
E.g. A divorced woman, who makes multiple errors in judgment due to her incessant state of inebriation, is obsessed with her ex-husband’s budding new family and tries to recover her life but begins to piece together a sinister past through wild flashbacks that foreshadow that the guilt might not be hers alone. (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins)
Character coming to the realization that there will not be any change at all.
E.g. A recluse author, under the pressure of trying to come up with a novel that will rival the success of his first, begins to write a female character who likes his dog and whom he starts to fall in love with, bringing her to life and later decides to allow her freedom of will, only to realize that once free, the character is no longer satisfied with her life with him alone, and feels morally compelled to set her free from his domain. (Ruby Sparks by Zoe Kazan)
Such classic plotlines are the fail-safes of writing fictions. Of course, one cannot simply rely on them to succeed. No, success is achieved by adding originality to these storylines in a way that lifts the characters off the pages – and that is entirely up to the author’s creativity. And even more complicated than deciding on the “causality” to induce the story arc is deciding how the plot will progress to make the story plausible.
So once you have decided how you will add the plot to your story, how do you move it forward? There are many methods of plotting you can use, and here are some approaches to get you started:
Traditional Approach – Ideal for planners, this is the method you use to first break down the entire story into chapters, then briefly summarize what happens in them as well as the contribution to the story arc that each makes.
Synopsis – Similar to the Traditional Method, the Synopsis is ideal for planners but who wish to allow themselves more creative room in writing individual scenes to build on the general plot as they progress. Here, the writer also outlines the entire story but without breaking it down chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene. The ending is often loosely introduced in the synopsis or may be left blank. The synopsis is a good practice for later if the author wishes to gain representation in traditional publishing.
Freytag’s Pyramid – Though the 5-act dramatic structure was almost abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century, German playwright Gustav Freytag not only brought it back into use but streamlined this outlining method by choicely breaking down the course of plot into Exposition (background information on the major elements introduced in the fiction), Rising Action (introduction and build-up of the conflict), Climax (turning point where conflict is at its most volatile), Falling Action (where conflict unravels and the final suspense/doubts are exposed), and Denouement (where the story’s loose ends are drawn together).
Three-Act Structure – This simplifies the 5-act structure by diving the plot into three segments as the name suggests and putting specific elements in each, which is left up to the author to decide on. Most commonly, the three-act structure is broken down into the introduction plus rise of conflict, climax, and resolution. This structure is becoming more popular as it is often now advised to introduce the inciting incident in the novel as early (often even scene one) into the story as possible to capture the audience from the get-go.
Hero’s Journey – This method engenders the three-act structure by specifically dividing the plot to induce the character arc for the MC. In the first act, the hero receives but refuses a call to action, thus showing his/her reluctance to get involved; in the second act, a series of trials are forced upon the hero that may test his/her physical prowess as well as intelligence, emotional, and ethical quotient; and, in the final act, the hero triumphs over the antagonist.
The Snowflake Method – Introduced by Randy Ingermanson, this method does not attempt to systematically outline the plot but rather starts with writing a one-sentence summary or loglines that defines and entices the storyline, then picks out specific elements in the story such as characters, conflicts, epiphanies, goals, etc., lists them out by rote, and adds details to them which will mechanize plot progress. This method is ideal for people who prefer discovering their way through the plot as much as the reader.
Draft Zero – Finally, the food of the pantsers and who think plots should remain mysteries until they are well on their way through the first draft [for creative freedom, of course]. The writer focuses on speed as they write a mock draft, allowing plenty of gaps in scenes to be filled in later. The writer courses through the story too quickly to allow for anything such as fatigue or “editing impulses” to set them back or keep them from reaching completion.
Of course, authors are welcome to combine any of these methods to ensure optimal output from themselves. After completing the draft of my first novel and realizing how my plot was all over the place, making my MC’s character arc plausible but not achieved via the right course, I took to employing a combination of Traditional Method and Draft Zero – it saves me a lot of time later that would be otherwise spent filling in plot holes.
What are your plotting processes?