*Sorry to be so late. We have ROOFERS, which means early mornings are not my own and late night is the only time I can concentrate to write, without roofers hammer-hammer-hammering on heaven’s roof. Or something.*
Something Must Happen
When you’re starting to write, you don’t think of the parts of a novel or whatever. You think “I have a story and I’m going to tell it.”
Except that very few of us get fully-built-stories in our heads, by which I mean fully functional narratives with fully functional characters, an interesting build up, a solid climax and for preference a good emotional kick.
No, what we get, what you’ll hear at any gathering of writers, is “prompts.” You know “I have this idea for a novel where the sky is made of sponge cake.” Or “I have this idea for a world where the males are the ones who give birth.” Or “I have this character, right? He’s the king, but he finds out his father was illegitimate. The guy making war on him, otoh, is the bastard grandson of the real king. And because magic in this world goes with the blood of the kings, he’s all conflicted…”
The last one is the least interesting when you’re telling it. It’s also, I’m afraid, the type of newbie writing who has a hard road ahead. I know this. I was there once.
What I got were fascinating characters, but they didn’t do much of anything, except sometimes angst. Which makes for boring reading.
After a few people told me I needed a plot (ah!) I started reading how to write books, where I found the following definition of plot “plot is where things happen.”
Uh. Right. Thanks muchly.
Some of the books went into a lot more detail about the sort of things that should happen, but either they didn’t explain well enough for a born character-writer, or I was more obtuse back then, in my twenties. (It has to be the first, right, because I could never have been obtuse.)
I never made the most likely mistake in these circumstances. I know it’s the most likely, because I’ve seen a lot of fledgelings make it.
Make a lot of things happen around your character. Sometimes your character reacts to them. Sometimes he’s like a uber-Aspergers character and just wonders around, relating things as volcanoes blow up, Earthquakes destroy the land, monsters eat all his friends and corpses tumble from the sky at his feet. (This is the accurate description of the “plot” of a friend’s story when we were all beginners.)
This is things happening. It might even be fascinating things happening. But this is not plot. Not only does it reveal nothing about your character (unless your character is a camera) but it does not “pull” the reader forward. There is no reason to see what happens next, if what happens next is a random disaster, and we don’t care about the characters to whom the disaster happens.
This is also, btw, 90% of the drek on Amazon.
So, the next level, which I did fall into for a while (and which is why there’s a long trilogy awaiting a full rewrite) is to have things happen TO your character. This is mildly more interesting, at least if your character isn’t a simpering Sally like mine was, who just sat and cried about everything that happened to him and all his misfortunes. If you care for the character, you’re going to care that he gets eaten by monsters, has lava erupt under his feet, etc.
Only after a while it gets really tiring. You can get away with it in a short story. But not in a novel. After a while this process, which my friend Kate calls “dropping walls on characters” – i.e. the character is going along, and another unexpected event flattens him – gets really boring. And if you’re like me and start with a character that grows organically, after a few hundred pages of this treatment, he becomes mush. He doesn’t care anymore. He just wants you to kill him.
The next level up from that is to have stuff happen that’s in a crescendo. This is a “things get worse” plot. Yeah, you’re still dropping walls on the character, but they’re GRADUATED walls, and people watch, if nothing else out of the same morbid fascination that draws us to train wrecks. Works pretty well for short stories.
For novels, it tends to be curiously unsatisfying. It can work, mind, provided the disasters are interesting enough, but it leaves much to be desired. (Almost all novels of apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, written by beginners, follow this.)
So, Sarah, since you’re a know it all, what is a plot, optimally?
Optimally a plot, after a precipitating incident, consists of things that happen due to the actions of your character, which are in turn informed by this character’s flaws, and which proceed in a crescendo of seriousness and difficulty, until they reach a climax where all is either lost or won.
Yes, it bears a superficial resemblance to the things above, but the difference is it proceeds from the situation and the character, and resolves or highlights the character’s flaws or strengths. (Or both.)
Translated into human speech this goes something like this:
-there is an alien invasion
-Bob is caught at the office, where, out of a sense of decency, he tries to save as many people as possible. Which makes him responsible for Sobbing Sally.
-Sobbing women irritate Bob, so he tries to ditch her, which leads to drawing the aliens to them.
– This makes Bob have to fight them off.
-Sobbing Sally realizes Bob was trying to ditch her and walks off, which is okay with Bob who hates Sobbing Women, but Sobbing is captured and leads the aliens back to Bob.
-So Bob now gets he’s stuck with Sobbing, and has to escape and drag her alone.
– this escalates in problem severity, until Bob gets that Sally is Sobbing because she’s missing her favorite gun and can’t fight the aliens.
– they break into a gun store, get the gun and Sobbing and Bob defeat the aliens. (Yay.)
Yes, that plot is stupid and simplistic, but it is a functional plot.
Now grab your favorite novel and do a dual diagram, chapter by chapter – How do things get worse in each chapter? (be warned in novels there might be respite “catch your breath” chapters.) How did the main character bring this about by what he’s done and what he’s failed to do? How does this highlight his flaws/strengths? (If you don’t have a favorite novel, do this to Monster Hunter International.)
Next Week, Twirling our moustache and plotting – W plots, Thriller plots, romance plots, twisty plots.