The Writer’s Toolbox: Plots and plants

Contrary to a rather popular belief, plots are not simply what happens in a story. Confused? Think of reality TV. That has no plot – stuff happens for the set time period, then the show finishes. So while stuff happening is necessary to plot, it’s not sufficient. I’m not claiming any guru-ness here, so if anyone can offer more or better information than I’ve got, feel free to speak up.

At any rate, I’ve identified these major components to plot: People, places, motives, actions, and pace. I consider them essentials because if you take any one of them away, you don’t have a plot any more. What’s more, none of them can be switched out for a different set without significantly changing the plot.

Here’s the way I look at it. Your people are your characters, major or minor, good, evil or somewhere in between. If by some chance you have no characters, you also have no plot unless you anthropomorphized part of the scenery, in which case it is a character. If you genuinely don’t have any characters, you’re writing for a suckitudinous fiction prize and don’t need a plot. For the vast majority of the rest of us, there are people, whether they’re human-shaped, dog-shaped, alien-shaped, or something even stranger.

As for place, well, the floating voices in undefined space effect is just so passe these days, and besides, as I mentioned a few weeks back, place has a profound impact on character. It also, not coincidentally, has a big effect on actions and pace. Harry Potter would not be the same story if it was set anywhere other than a magical version of the quintessential English boarding school. None of Pterry’s Discworld novels would work anywhere but the Disc. And so forth. Without a sense of place, a story won’t feel grounded, making it weaker – one of the reasons I spent hours researching Wallachia, Bulgaria and Turkey to get the feel of place for Impaler as close to right as I could without walking the whole thing myself (not that I’d mind doing that, but there’s little issue with budget, namely I haven’t got one).

Motives are what drive your plot. If no-one wants anything, there’s no reason to do anything so there’s no plot. Even talent shows have a plot of sorts: everyone there wants to win, and only one of them can. Your main characters need to want something enough to turn their own worlds inside out in order to get it. Along the way, they’ll have more immediate but less major needs and desires: which is where we as authors get to make their lives miserable by denying them their needs and making them chase that big motive while half-dead, or in extreme cases all-dead and too stubborn to let go.

Actions rise from character, motive and place – the person, motive and place determine the best action (or what looks like it – part of our job as authors is to make sure the action that looks best is going to turn around and bite the person). After all, if you desperately want to be a cross-country skiing champion, what you do to become one is going to be totally different if you live in Switzerland than if you live in Jamaica. It will be a lot easier from Switzerland than from Jamaica, too, and unless you’re aiming for suckitudinous infamy, a more difficult big motive leads to more actions and riskier actions – which makes the story more interesting. The higher the stakes, the better the plot, as a rule. Playing dice with the Devil for a few pennies isn’t nearly as interesting as playing for your soul (and losing. Then you’ve got to defeat the Devil on his home turf. See what I mean?).

Pace is the last piece of the plot puzzle. The simplest way to look at pace is how fast things happen, but it’s more than that – pace measures how fast things feel. As a general rule, the more intense the emotions around a sequence of events, the faster it will feel, even if almost nothing happens. I don’t recommend loading seven hundred pages with intense emotion while advancing an epic plot all of three days and ten miles, though. As will all things, moderation is good. Pace should not stay the same through a book – there’s a natural rhythm a story follows that has several peaks and quite a few slower sections that let readers and characters catch their breath. The early L. K. Hamilton books are brilliant examples of pacing – she has it down almost to the page: to the extent that you could look at how much book was left and figure you had maybe a chapter before all hell broke loose (given the plot, often literally).

Of course, you can’t deal with all of these in isolation: they work together and if done well enhance each other. When they’re done very well, you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it. In my case, I don’t notice anything until the book’s been finished, it’s several hours later, I’ve got starving cats, I haven’t eaten and it’s way past when I should have been in bed. I may be a tad on the extreme side.

So that’s the quickie overview of plot, the super-simple version. Typically, most writers will be good at one or two of the elements and weaker with the others – it really does help to identify which aspects of plotting you need to improve and get help from someone who’s good at it. It helps even more if the person who mentors you had to work at it themselves: when something comes easy it’s a lot harder to teach because the nuts and bolts are buried in the subconscious and it will “just happen”.

18 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox: Plots and plants

  1. To add to this, because I’m a pain — one extremely good part of this whole makes up for the rest. The exception possibly being place, unless your place has vulcanos errupting and other dramatic events that will make the character’s life living hell and complicate the action and the achievement of the goal. But unlike what Tolkien said, just pretty descriptions of trees do not make you forget that the characters have been sitting in one spot for half the book. (I don’t know why Tolkien said it. Writers lie for a living, you can’t trust anything they say. Remember that.) However, look at Laurell Hamilton (I hear she wears interesting outfits these days.) Her actions are often so logically flawed that you’d be laughing madly IF she gave you time. But her pacing didn’t, so you couldn’t, and you read to the end. Or look at C J Cherryh’s fantasy, particularly Angel With the Sword. The pacing is… uh… you could say there is no pacing. But the character and the place carry the book. (In the case of pacing, you need at least two elements to carry it.) Or take a lot of the regencies I read when I’m brain fried. With a few exceptions, these women are no Heyer. Their research seems to consist of “have read a lot of regencies.” Unless they’re so eggregious as to have CA be part of the US DURING the war of independence, I catch the errors and shrug, because I’m reading it for characters (usually. Some of them do pacing better than characters, but they’re rare.) However, it’s been my experience you can only tell this from the outside, so don’t you go “oh, I’m really good at characters, so I don’t need to worry about anything else.” In this field, now more than ever, it’s all about the arrows in your quiver or the tools in your toolbox, and more is better. Oh, and they can all be learned. When I was unpublished, an agent rejected my novel by saying while everything else was magnificent, I had no pacing, and that couldn’t be learned. He was wrong on all counts — the plotting/characters on that novel sucked; the pacing was okay but not thrilling (it was faster than my first published trilogy) and I’ve since learned to tighten that pace. A lot.

    1. Tolkien said what? I demand proof, otherwise I might suggest someone is telling porkies. 😉

      1. Um. Are you challenging Sarah? That’s a dangerous thing to do. (Heads for the nuclear bunker and hopes it’s strong enough)

      2. Brendan,
        To begin with Qui Bono? Why would I tell a lie about Tolkien? He’s not one of my favorite authors, which is not unusual for those of us who encountered him in their twenties, but I bear him no animosity. Peole I like and respect think he is the best writer ever. So, check your understanding of the psychology of the situation.

        Tolkien “cordially disliked Shakespeare” and online you can find several references to his being disappointed with Shakespeare’s use of walking trees. Beyond that — and not on line as far as I can see — I once sat in on the presentation of a scholarly paper on Tolkien (at mythopoeic conference, by someone who was reading Tolkien’s papers for some sort of thesis — and who apparently hasn’t put it on line yet) in which a quote of Tolkien’s was read saying that his work was superior to Shakespeare’s because Shakespeare couldn’t DESCRIBE trees, while he had however many pages of tree description. Yeah, that doesn’t add to he thought pretty trees could carry the novel — I was making use of hyperbole, which is a writer’s tool that Kate hasn’t mentioned yet — but he clearly thought setting a very important part of narrative. (If you want proof of THAT — since I can’t find the exact quote on line in the minimal time I’m willing to give it — I suggest you read Tolkien.) By implication — comparing the narrative to the theater and saying the theater came short — he meant it was important for the author to have absolute control of setting, which meant setting was not only VITAL to story but capable of conferring it superiority over plot and characters (Shakespeare) and therefore capable of carrying the story.

      3. Sarah, I wouldn’t have said a word if you hadn’t said “Writers lie for a living, you can’t trust anything they say. Remember that”

        More the fool me for taking you at your word?


    2. Sarah,
      The key bit as far as I can tell is that you try to get as skilled as you can with all the tools – because assuming that a weakness in one area can get carried by strengths in the other means you’re writing a book that’s not as good as it could be.

      Like you say, it’s all about the arrows in your quiver or the tools in your toolbox.

  2. I’m not sure language use or the emotional understanding of homo sape needed for writing compelling characters can be learned, refined and honed yes. We all know at least one would be writer who uses words like any two of the same type are the same. The type of appreciation for nuance that would let someone write a strong character either is or isn’t in place in person, how well those with it employ it is the sticking point.

    1. There’s a difference between “X can be taught” and someone being willing to learn it. I strongly suspect the latter is much more common – and the reason certain writers claim that there’s no need for compelling characters. Learning is difficult, and a lot of people would rather get by on, say, caricatures who get moved through a preordained plot like glorified chess pieces than learn how to observe, much less how to write good characters.

      1. I’ve never found compelling evidence to believe anyone can learn anything. Just like _I_ can’t sing worth a damn, and algebra slides sideways off my brain, some people _don’t_ have the ability to learn those nuances.

        I don’t possess the ability for singing at even an enjoyable level, much less professional entertainment level (and I mean the good ones) I can practice all day long, hire the best coaches in the world and it won’t change a thing.

        1. Mike,

          You are self-evidently wrong. People — unless they have pretty severe brain deffects — can learn SOME THINGS. The amount of work needed to learn those things varies according to the natural disposition of people — and the natural gifts. For instance, my husband says I COULD be taught ot sing, if I had the right master and spent enough time (which in my case would be a lot.) The right teacher would involve someone who teaches the deaf, as that’s what’s wrong with my singing — I don’t HEAR right, so I can’t find the key with a seeing eye dog. (Or hearing hear.) I will grant you that learning CERTAIN things is well-night impossible. For instance, given my visual IQ, learning anything that requires a different alphabet, and learning certain types of maths/physics would require total absorption over YEARS. It could however be done, and I would do it if enough — say my kids’ survival — depended on it.

          It will probably surprise you to know — or maybe not, since you know me pretty well– that I do not have a talent for FOREIGN languages. I learned seven, and could do all right in them, given using them every day, but I have no natural inclination to learn languages and was more or less forced into the study. This meant that I saw my classmates zip through things that required me to work twenty times as hard as they did. BUT I could learn it — for a value of learning. I could also have them slide from my brain as soon as I stopped studying/using them. Also, being proficient in one language, requires me to let the others go which is why my brother refers to me as “an ex speaker of Portuguese” (And is justified.)

          The more apt question is why someone who has NO interest in human behavior/psychology would take up fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) writing. I’m not saying that those people don’t exist, only that they’re very rare and near-handicapped. Even then, my guess is by immitation and repetition, they PROBABLY could write passable enough characters, in the sub-genres that require less character motivation. (Say, hard sf puzzle stories. Or mystery puzzle stories. Some physical-action based thrillers, also. Splatter horror.)

          Since I think I started this whole thing by saying I learned pacing — in this case, I suspect pacing is a culturally-learned thing. ALL Portuguese stories have abnormally slow pacing. I can tell when I’m reading a Portuguese author (Larry Correia is not Portugal raised, so I’m not impugning him) because there’s a certain “stillness” to the narrative, even in translation. I can still see it in SOME of my work. But it can be fought and I do fight it. Does this make my pacing excellent? Probably not. But it makes it good enough for me to be published, which is what the agent who shall not be named (second agent) said I’d never be. I could learn pacing, it just required near-complete acculturation.

      2. Mike,
        I didn’t say that anyone can learn anything. I said that writing skills can be taught. Someone who’s starting from negative is never going to be as good as someone who’s got the talent from it, and the end result depends on practice and brainpower (creativity itself seems to be linked to intelligence). Call that the “instrument” if you will – a better instrument will get a better result, but the skills involved in using it can be taught.

        You might have a lousy singing voice, but if you’re not tone deaf learning music will give you more tools to appreciate music generally.

      3. Kate,

        Piffle! I put fully as much energy into algerbra classes, _because I LOATHE_ failure, as I do english or history, possibly more. Multiple teachers, multiple classes, multiple life stages. I’m pretty sure one of the teachers was even gifted enough to have taught me tact, still can’t do it.
        Now geometry, i felt like i was cheating in that class, it came easily enough that I was almost as easy as picking up psychology or doing some simple research project with ten or twelve sources in three days.

      4. Mike,

        You know, the last time I looked algebra was not a writing skill. Just saying…

        Actually, your algebra non-skills sound rather like my father, who had experienced math teachers in fits because he – quite literally – aced his geometry classes, and zeroed algebra. The math teachers were complaining that it wasn’t possible anyone could be so good in one form of math and so dreadful in the other and were convinced he’d deliberately flunked out of algebra. Nope.

        That particular quirk I suspect is a missing connection (or set of them) somewhere in the brain that just flat doesn’t link the highly abstract, symbolic math of algebra to more concrete forms of math. Geometry is much more visual, so someone with math abstraction issues can do well in it without needing the abstractions.

    2. Sarah,

      Sorry, no. All brains are not created equally. Even within the span of “normal” or “neurotypical” there are variants in ability. This is what creates different interests, different levels of anxiety, variations in sleep patterns, and even different mood intensities.

      You, Kate, and I are more similar to each other — despite being born on three continents, and raised in rather different circumstances not to mention genders and ages — than we are to the average person in any of the three nations of origin. Kate is more math skilled, you’re more language skilled, and I’m a better salesperson. All three of us are well above the average IQ.

      Sorry, me right, you write. :-p

      1. Sorry Mike,

        You wrong. Thp! That different brains are different and there are different levels of ability does not mean that writing skills can’t be learned – with the usual caveat of specific brain damage and enough intelligence to be literate.

        Since I’m aiming at an audience of “writer” and “wants to be a writer” here, I’m taking those caveats as a given.

        For a counter-example, I suggest you consider certain severely dyslexic authors. They have to work much harder than most at just about every aspect of the craft, but the fact that there are dyslexic authors (Wen Spencer for one – she’s quite open about it) is evidence that writing skills can be learned even by someone whose brain is perpetually at war with the written language.

  3. When LK Hamilton’s first 4 books came out they were fresh and fun. Loved her pacing. Loved her cheeky main character. Might go back and reread them now in view of what’s happened with the paranormal phenomenon.

    1. The early Hamilton books were very well done. They really are one of the best examples of pacing out there – and like Sarah said upthread, the combination of pace and character helped paper over some gaping holes in world building.

    2. Rowena,
      I loved the first three Hamilton’s, but on reading them, now, almost twenty years later, as mother of boy-children I found the objectification of males offensive. Considering I’m not one to EVEN USE the word “objectification” the reaction surprised me a little. Maybe it’s my head space right now, and in ten years I’ll find them great again. (Who knows?)

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