Posts Tagged plot structure

WRITING CHRONICLE #30: plots and the way they move

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)

knowing myself

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.

freytags_pyramid-svg_-630x419

Image: Wikimedia

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?

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Comments

Wednesday Reflections #27 – Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Via: Daily Prompt – Interest & Deny

22054354Title     Cranford

Author     Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre     English Literature, Classic

Publisher      Heritage Illustrated Publishing

Publication Date      March 17, 2014

Format      eBook via Project Gutenberg

Setting     Regency England, Industrial Revolution

ISBN     N/A

Synopsis: Cranford, sometimes referred to as Chronicles of Cranford, was originally published between 1851 and 1853 as a series of vignettes belonging to a larger body of work by Elizabeth Gaskell in the magazine Household Words, as edited by Charles Dickens. The novel follows the lives of spinster sisters Misses Deborah and Matilda (Matty) Jenkynses and their bevy of matronly comrades who oversee the genteel standards of living for the society of this titular town. The narrative accounts are related by Miss Mary Smith who spends the larger share of each year living with the Misses Jenkynses given her unwavering attachment to the townspeople – though her family moved to and officially resides in the nearby city of Drumble for the benefit of her father’s growing business. Mr. Smith, an industrious man preoccupied with his work, rarely feels Mary’s absence, much to the satisfaction of all principal characters in the story. Mary, in turn, especially benefits from the female society Cranford affords since her mother passed away some years ago, upon whence, she has been left mostly to her own devices in her household. Meanwhile, the women of Cranford take great care to uphold all appearances of dignified living despite any pecuniary shortcomings. What unfolds is a witty commentary of a community that strives to retain the “old ways” despite any modernity the industrial revolution brings to their small town and a heartwarming portrayal of feminine friendship that enlists infallible assistance even in the face of irreparable tragedies.

Experience (some necessary spoilers): Honestly, I did not procure this book until I saw the 2007 BBC adaptation starring Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins last month. I never even listed it among my TBRs. The TV mini-series, however, was very enjoyable and so, as I never deny myself a comparative assessment once I have seen the adaptation of a classic literature, I began reading.

When, in the Making of Cranford, creator and writer Sue Birtwistle (one of the geniuses behind the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) confessed that the crew had taken many liberties while writing the script for Cranford, I did not imagine the extent to which this admission was accurate. If one reads the novel and then seeks any accuracy of narrative or characters in the adaptation, they will feel the discrepancies. However, if the heart of the novel were to be determined, they will discover that the adaptation has amplified Gaskell’s intentions. In essence, while the adaptation made unscrupulous changes to the original story(s), it made up for the one gross limitation of the novel, i.e. a structured plot.

Indeed, it was not until I reached Chapter 12 that I began to see a plot formation. Upon a bit of research into the work, I learned that Gaskell, due to her commitment to writing another novel, was quite irregular with the installments for this one, which must account for why the first half of the book chiefly details individual events in the lives of the various Cranford ladies without amounting to any particular direction in which the overall the story headed. However, the adaptation more than provides for a plot even though the scriptwriters often resorted to omitting certain characters by merging them with others, killing off some characters early in the series while keeping alive throughout the program others who were meant to have died as per the novel, and generally attributing the events of some characters to the roles of others. To wit, there was a lot of shuffling around; however, not always at a deficit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the adaptation was better than the book but Birtwistle and her team edited Gaskell’s story whereas the original author had not.

Having provided you with a fair warning on book vs. adaptation, allow me to proceed to tell you how I felt about the novel itself. Despite the lack of structure in the storyline, both the subject of the narrative and the writing voice had me vested from the first page. In fact, it boasts one of the better opening sentences I have ever read:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”

For a feminist, this line would be of guaranteed interest and I can imagine the popularity the series would have garnered with its very first installation among bluestockings. Indeed, as Household Words aspired to raise the “affection of both sexes”, Cranford was ideal literature towards that objective.

Gaskell, herself, wrote of her characters with much affection, even though she was not impervious to listing their many deficiencies where soundness of logic is concerned, which may have been engineered to recommend the material to the male readers – or, at least, it prevented the reading from becoming wholly unpalatable to her opposite sex given how self-sufficient the characters were. Before the first paragraph is over, we learn that the men manage to find themselves out of Cranford one way or another (“In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not in Cranford”) because the autonomy with which the womenfolk conduct themselves renders any male presence redundant. As if to exemplify, early in the book, the one man who manages to infiltrate this community and endear himself with his unassuming and obliging ways, manages to get himself killed in an act of heroics.

The Misses Jenkynses, who are themselves daughters of the former rector of the parish, act as the moral compass for the community as well as regulators of the general decorum of their society. The women adhere to certain rules, which would not always make sense to outsiders but manage to ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and lives in harmony with one another. And while the older Miss Deborah Jenkyns passes away early in the novel, her guidelines are continued to be followed by her peers. So much so that the surviving Miss Matty cannot make most of her decisions without in some way counseling with her conscience as to what her sister might have done. In fact, it is one of the distinguishing traits of Miss Matty to second-guess herself and always reflect upon the inferiority of her mental capabilities in comparison to others because she was so determinedly steered by her sister in all things while the elder still lived. It is not until later in the novel, when Miss Matty begins to demonstrate a bit more independence in decision-making – albeit with temerity – that we begin to realize that she is the central character of Mary’s narrative even though so much of their lives is presided over by the spirit of the long-deceased Deborah Jenkyns.

Yet, the women are not without their individualities, from fashion sense to personal peculiarities. For example, Miss Matty always saves on household expenditures by burning only one candle at a time but would alternately burn two candles every day to ensure they are of the same height in a sense of “elegant economy” (since having two candles lit was the due riggeur) for the benefit of witness should they have visitors. While another character Mrs. Forrester regularly washed her prized lace in milk to obtain that fine creamy hue and once, when her cat swallowed the unattended lace with the cream,  had even fed the animal current-jelly before stuffing it in a farmer’s boot so it could “return” the favored item, for such fine lace could no longer be procured given the nuns from the continent who used to produce it had stopped. And such was the friendship between the women in the community that such eccentrics were not laughed at nor even found wanting. In fact, I thought for a feminist herself who wished to demonstrate how well women could get on on their own, Gaskell was rather harsh towards her characters, ridiculing them more often than they did one another though there was plenty of inducement. However, such indiscretions on Gaskell’s part could easily be overlooked when considering how honest and consistent her portrayal of each character was.

Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the true intent of the author becomes more visible and the reader may realize that amidst all the satire, Gaskell’s message from the town of Cranford is related by how Miss Matty continues to remain a paragon of goodness and kindliness even in the face of adversity, which without fail manages to bring about the best qualities in others. We see, in an hour of need, the devotion with which other characters come to her aid, self-sacrificing without hesitation, simply founded on an assurance that, if situations were reversed, Miss Matty would have happily ransomed every single one of her comfort to benefit another. Even individuals outside their immediate social circle is fully aware of Miss Matty’s eternally benevolent heart and childlike expectation of others to do only good, ensuring that they mirror the same qualities – at least in their deeds towards her. As Mary’s father, upon learning how Miss Matty’s friends rally around her, aptly explains:

See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a person; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences–only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.”

And Mary, who grows into a woman under the unconscious counsel of this woman, too emulates to think of others before herself, particularly resourcing ways to make Miss Matty happy one of her priorities, faithfully concludes:

We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”

Recommendation: There is nothing I love more than a story that depicts the wholesome traits of humanity and this book had this in many folds. I recommend the read to anyone who feels the need to restore their faith in the goodness of mankind and a reminder that kindness begets kindness.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

%d bloggers like this: