December is upon us. There’s no snow yet, but there’s plenty of holiday cheer, and it’s only two weeks until the solstace and the days start getting longer. I’ve been out of school for two years, and yet this is still a time of recurring stress dreams about exams for classes i didn’t know I was taking. It is also the time, once again, where I try to keep up my NaNoWriMo momentum. So far, not so good. But there are still three weeks of the month left, and all those unexplainable nerves need to go somewhere. Why not give them to some of my characters?
So, this November, along with writing a bunch of short stories, I wrote blog posts about how I plot stories, from the ending, to the climax, to the beginning, and finally to the middle. If you missed them, check them out. This week, I want to wrap up my discussion by talking a bit more generally about plot.
The plot of the story is the action of the story. When I say action, I don’t mean crazy chase scenes or gun fights or anything like that—though that is always fun. I mean the physical events of the story and how they move from one to the next to the next. It is the arc of these events, usually from bad to worse to even worse to the moment of ultimate desperation to finally heading towards better. The plot arc is usually separate from the character arc of the story, and you can have plot driven stories—where the action pushes the story forward—and character driven stories—where the character’s goals and desires push the story forward (I’ll talk about character in more detail later). My favorite stories are the ones that are pushed forward by a combination—or a conflict—of plot and character.
One of the things I do to help me plot a story from scene to scene, or something I do after I have written the whole story but need to substantially clean it up, is try to fit the plot into one of the basic plot structures that already exist. This is a really helpful tool for me, because it almost always points me towards the parts of the story that need work. Your plot doesn’t have to fit these structures in every way, but these structures also work for a reason. So if my plot doesn’t fit the plot structure I think it’s trying to be, I take the time to ask myself why.
There are a bunch of plot structures, but here are my favorites.
The Basic Plot Arc: This is the plot arc you are taught in elementary school when you’re learning the basic components of a story. You start with the exposition—the beginning. You are introduced to the key players in the story, the situation, and the setting. You can also include information about the characters’ backgrounds here, enough to keep the reader from being confused anyway. I like to sprinkle in backstory along the way rather than dump it all in the beginning. Then you have the developing conflict, the climax, and the denouement—the ending. James Joyc also calls the denouement part of the story the epiphany, the moment when the main character learns something about him or herself or about the situation that changes how
they view the world and the events that came before.
This is so basic that I don’t really use it for anything, but it’s still the foundation of all other plot structures, so I like to keep it in mind. I do like the idea of the denouement as including an epiphany moment for the main character, though.
The Three Act Structure: This is most commonly used for television shows and movies, but I’ve seen it applied effectively to books and short stories as well. Basically, the story is divided into three parts, or acts.
The first act introduces the characters and the situation. The inciting incident or call to action breaks the main character out of their routine. There is the first confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist. The stakes are raised. There is a turning point.
In the second act, the protagonist experiences a second turning point or a reversal. The character discovers their approach has been completely wrong. Their world-view is realigned. The character hits rock-bottom, but then finds the means to continue.
The third act is the resolution of the story. There’s the climax, and then the denouement.
I mostly use this structure when I’m revising rather than when I’m planning. It is a framework for analysis, rather than the bones of my story. It is useful to judge the balance of the parts of your story and the levels of tension.
The Hero’s Journey: This one is pretty fun, and it’s usually used in big epic adventure stories. Lord of the Rings, which I recently finished for the first time, and A New Hope, which I recently watched for the first time (feel free to judge me), both follow this pretty closely.
The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure. The hero refuses the call. They like things the way they are. But then the hero is forced to except the call. Usually, something happens that leaves the hero no other choice. The home they love so much is burned to the ground and everyone they love is killed or captured or enslaved.
Next, the hero goes through a road of trials. This is a series of try-fail sequences. The hero attempts to solve the problem, defeat the enemy, rescue their kidnapped loved ones, etc. But they fail. Over and over and over again.
Then the hero gains allies and powers, and they think they have a shot at it. They confront the forces of evil and fail again. Really badly. This is the dark night of the soul for the hero, their moment of greatest desperation. Next, the hero takes a leap of faith—in themself, in their friends, in some sort of higher power. This faith gives the hero the power to overcome what they could not overcome before. Now the hero confronts evil and succeeds. At last, the hero returns. They go home or find a new community, and they are recognized for their victory.
The Try-Fail Cycle: I have a worksheet that David Levine handed out my first year at Alpha that outlines this very well, and while I have grown away from filling it in for every story, I still keep it in the back of my mind as I’m planning. The worksheet takes your story from an idea to a scene by scene outline. You start with an idea, then think of a situation that goes with that idea. Next, you come up with the characters to go in the situation. What do your characters want (related to this situation), and why can’t they have it? Then you think about the implications of the situation. How can it go wrong? How can it get worse? How can it get even worse? Finally, how does the story end? The traditional try-fail cycle is three fails and a success. If you haven’t noticed, the number three is heavily engrained in our culture. Ideally, every character in your story will have their own try-fail sequence, though we hope that the antagonist doesn’t succeed in the end.
The worksheet also asks questions to guide your thinking about who is the protagonist of the story, where the story is taking place and how elements of the setting can be used to enhance the story, and what you think the tone of the story will be. These are all important things to consider before you start writing and then again as you start to revise, but the questions that are really important to me are the ones about the plot.
What is the situation?
What do the characters want from this situation?
What are the implications of this situation?
How can it go wrong?
How can it get worse?
How can it get even worse?
How will it be resolved?
When I was in high school, I didn’t understand plot. And I mean I really didn’t understand it. I read a lot, and I could recognize well-plotted stories, but no matter how many times I was told, “Jameyanne, this is how plot works,” it just didn’t sink in. I wrote very character-driven stories then, but even then, the characters weren’t actually doing anything. When I went to college, I discovered how to plot. The credit for this goes to the fabulous writing conversations my friends and I were always having, as well as my two weeks at Alpha after my freshman year and some hard rejections that I really needed. So plot is still a relatively new thing to me, and I’m actually still dealing with stories I drafted in high school where I still really like the idea but there is no plot. My small child wizard novel, which I pledged to revise back in January, had this problem for a long time. It was an idea that I really believed in though, and it took three or four complete rewrites to get it from zero-plot to its current state of bursting with plot. Or at least, I hope that’s the state it’s in. My senior honors novel also has this problem to some degree, because I came up with the original idea at the end of high school, but it’s not nearly as bad as the small child wizard story. I still haven’t revised that one but I have some ideas.
At this point, I have a pretty good grasp on plot from the start, and I tend to use all these structures more as a frame of reference if I’m stuck or before I revise than as a step by step guide to writing my stories. To my mind, this is progress, but my plots will always be something I pay close attention to as I plan, as I write, and as I revise. Hence all the blog posts about how I plot stories.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. My next few posts will be only sort-of writing related, but I’m planning to tackle character, point of view, setting, tone, and theme early next year, so look forward to that.
I want to leave you with one final thought for this post. In her book, Writing Magic, Gail Carson Levine asks what makes you keep reading a book. The answer: “The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy. We keep turning pages because we’re worried. Horrible things are happening to the heroine (some of which she may be causing), and we have to find out if she comes through them all right.”
In other words: You want a strong plot? You want your reader to keep on reading? Make your character suffer. Make your reader suffer. Make everything go horribly, horrribly wrong, so when at last it goes right, it is awesome.