Plot Plodding

Something I hear writers talk (read: complain) about a LOT is plot. They worry about having one before they start writing. They worry about holes in it. They worry it’s boring. They worry about all kinds of things having to do with the plot.

What catches me up is that I’m not sure some of them know what a plot really is, so it seems to me that they’re worrying and fussing about the wrong things.

Plot is not the sequence of events, the flow of causes and effects, which is what most people talk about. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of the story.

Plot is the release of information to the reader.

That probably needs more words to explain it better, huh?

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. What is story? What is storytelling? How does plot fit into it?

Story, in my experience, is the sharing of something that’s either universal or interesting to the human experience. Storytelling is the asking of questions by the teller and the interest in the answers by the listener. Thus, plot is the structure of that sharing, when the important points are revealed to listener.

In other words: You can run cause-and-effect scenes one right after another and get a novel-length manuscript, but, if you think about it, that’s all our real lives are. This happens, then this happens, and something else happens, and it’s all pretty boring. The bits we share are the unusual moments (So I was taking care of this customer, and all of a sudden he starts vomiting on me!), the moments that will connect us with other people (Oh, my child/pet/spouse/coworker does something like that too…) or the just plain humorous moments (And then she just slipped and fell flat on her backside!) that we’ve experienced.

It’s that kind of interest that makes it a story. The larger the story, the more important those moments, and the more frequent those moments have to appear. There’s an old adage in writing: “Conflict on every page.” I don’t know about conflict, but there’s got to be something on every page that will either have the readers asking more questions, giving them some tidbit of information or finalizing the answer from all those tidbits. That doling out of information is the plot.

Of course, this is assuming that the storyteller is aware of the fact that they’re giving questions to the listener in the first place. Many, many writers I’ve talked to don’t understand the concept of story questions, which is kind of amazing to me. To give an example of story questions, let me post the first two paragraphs of my manuscript-in-progress, Legend’s End

Sullore never thought he’d resent watching the moon rise. He could see its ascent clearly through the large opening in the cave wall. Its fullness washed over the farmlands outside of the city, highlighting the massive rise of the King’s Carn and, finally, hinting at the distant foothills. The landscape taunted freedom. As the light grew brighter, it sliced through the darkness of the prison floor.

 

This was Sullore’s sixth time knowing judgment might well come with the dawn. Repetition made it no easier. There was no guarantee there would be another reprieve, and he refused to expect one. Sullore knew the crimes he was accused of, knew his actions, and knew the judgment was out of his control. He would die or live at the word of the yet-unknown queen, whenever she took the Crystal Throne.

If I’ve done the work correctly, the story questions I hope the readers comes away with are as follows:

1. What did Sullore do to be in prison?

2. Why isn’t there a Crystal Queen?

3. What is a Crystal Queen?

 If the reader has more questions, all the better, but those are the ones that will lead them into the main story. As for answers, the first one is answered later that scene. The second question is answered by the end of the next scene, which should also emphasize the third question. There’s tidbits of information throughout the first three chapters, but isn’t mostly answered until midway through Chapter Three. But in the course of giving those answers, I’ve raised more by introducing more characters and their situations and relationships. By the end of the third chapter, the war that is the main conflict of the book has been declared by assassination.

Please note that I called the war the main conflict. That is driving conflict that influences every character’s choices and attitudes, it is not the main plot. The conclusion of that main conflict is the resolution of the main plotline, but it, in and of itself, isn’t the plot. The conflict is the topic of questions and answers. The plot is still when questions are asked, and answers given.

Throughout the novel, I have a lot of topics I ask questions about. Character relationships, a certain character’s sanity, the nature of magic and gods in this world, the meaning of responsibility. Each of these questions form their own story arcs when the question is asked, heighten as tidbits are given, and end when the answer is given. And all of these story arcs intersect and merge with the main story arc of whether or not our heroes will win the war and prevent their homeland from being invaded.

Hopefully, this perspective makes some sense. It’s rather difficult to take something that I know fairly instinctively (plot) and don’t need have to think consciously about and try to explain it in words. How’d I do?

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1 Comment

  1. Hmm. This was an interesting read. I am actually revising my WIP and I know I need quite some work. You’ve given good questions/tips that I will definitely try to keep in mind as I revise.
    Thank you!

    Reply

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