by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Superman, Fortress of Solitude, Metropolis: ©2002 DC Comics
Lost in Space, Dr. Smith, Will Robinson: ©1998 New Line Productions, Inc.
Being the first of what is planned to be twelve essays on the art of writing
What is a plot?
It is the core of any story, what makes the characters do what they do. Imagine Superman just sitting around on a lounge chair made of ice in the Fortress of Solitude, waiting for some evildoer to do something so he can spring into action. My bet is that by the end of the second or third chapter of watching Superman twiddling his thumbs and cutting out paper dolls while he waits, you'd be pretty bored.
In order to make certain I offered a comprehensive definition, I went looking for the perfect definition of a plot. I checked the usual sources on the web, including dictionary.com and the American Heritage Dictionary (via Bartleby.com). I also checked two style manuals, Merriam-Webster's and Prentice-Hall's. I even checked my personal copy of that library standard, Webster's 2nd International Dictionary. None really seemed to hit the nail on the head, unless I was interested in a small piece of property used to inter a corpse. All agreed on certain basic components including:  stages (i.e., a beginning, a middle and an end),  conflict and  action. The problem was that the examples used to demonstrate even the most basic definitions clearly included additional components such as:  characters,  a setting,  a situation, and  a theme.
It may seem obvious, but there must be stages to a plot and by this I mean, a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, although they don't necessarily have to occur in that order. For example, many mystery writers love to start with an apparent ending (i.e., a murder) and then jump backwards to explain the why, how and who. Another example is the time travel story (e.g., Robert A. Heinlein's classic short story, All You Zombies) where it can actually be difficult to decide what is the beginning or end.
Additionally, somehow there must be conflict. It does not matter whether it is a difference of opinion, a difference of approach or a difference of politics. It may be internal, like Hamlet's internal debate whether to kill his father the king in his soliloquy "To be or not to be", or external, like McMurphy's peremptory challenges of Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The bottom line is that there must be some sort of obstacle to be overcome; some problem to be resolved.
Finally, there also needs to be action. For this, I refer you back to the Superman analogy at the beginning of this article. A giant, three-headed Tammy Fay is rampaging through Metropolis, and Superman... you fill in the blank. If he keeps playing with his paper dolls, nothing happens and if nothing happens the story gets boring awfully quickly. However, if Superman jumps to the rescue there's action. If he continues making paper dolls while he figures out how to stop her, there's action. If he fails to stop her, or even if he fails to figure out how to stop her, there's action. There's gotta be action.
What About Those Other Components of a Plot?
Maybe it's enough to stop here, at least in terms of a definition. Certainly, the other components mentioned are often discussed separately. In fact, some are the topics of the future articles. As such I won't discuss them in detail, but a brief mention of each seems worthwhile and even if you don't agree with me that they belong in the definition of a plot, I feel certain you will see that they are important aspects of the plot development process.
To my mind, character is an aspect of plot since it's impossible to have a plot without characters. By character I don't mean everyone needs to be Horatio Alger, financial wizard, bastion of honor and champion of the weak; perfection can actually become boring rather quickly. If you don't believe me, read Jack Williamson's The Humanoids. I just mean that you need to consider the motives of each character and have the character act consistently. Think of Dr. Smith in Lost in Space. He's evil, self-serving and cowardly; definitely not a likable person, regardless of how Jonathan Harris tried to portray him as having a heart of gold buried under all those negative characteristics. Yet, he was predictable. He would always do the wrong thing until the last act, when it was time for him to do the noble thing and save young Will Robinson, or at least allow him to be saved.
You need to think about your characters and know them enough to know how they will act. Then you need to make certain that they act consistently.
It's not as obvious, but I suspect that the setting is as essential as some of these other components. After all, the setting isn't what is in conflict and it's not part of the action; it's the background. It doesn't add to the beginning or ending of the story, but it is still a major consideration in plot development.
Movies add the sounds of birds in trees and wind in trees, among other sounds, to add to the movie's verisimilitude. An author describes the style of a room's furniture and the cleanliness of an alley. A good background helps the reader to imagine what's happening, but the best background stays in the background. In effect, it's a supporting player, helping the story, but -- especially if it is a good background -- transparent to the reader. Stick Captain Ahab in a desert and Melville's Moby Dick falls apart. Yet Melville used myriad references to the ocean in Moby Dick to provide color, references that most people read, but rarely remember.
Next is the situation. Consider this a subset of conflict since it involves some sort of event. However, situation is more than just conflict. Actually, this is what usually sparks most stories -- a brilliant idea (e.g., what would happen if everyone in the world looks exactly the same, how they look is dependent upon the whim of one person and no one knows who that one person is). This is a situation, but a situation alone is not a plot. Your plot would take that situation and figure out how the situation would play out; taking an idea and adding the stages, conflicts and actions needed to make a complete story.
Theme is also one of those components of a story that should be considered a subset of the plot. Stories can have more than one theme and often do since the theme is the basic goal of each character. A gentleman named Cacoethes Scribendi defines theme as "the guiding objective of at least one character, usually the protagonist." For example, Ahab's theme is revenge. He's going to kill that Great White Whale if it's the last thing he does. For those who have not read the story, shame on you and don't expect me to give away any more.
Themes have also been called plot situations, and there aren't so very many of them, the exact number depending on who you ask. There are thirty-two different plot situations or themes listed in Clark's "A Manual of the Short Story Art," but some of my favorites include:
6. The Mystery -- think Scooby Doo
14. Struggle Against Destiny or God -- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
30. Disaster -- think any of Bruce Willis' Die Hard Movies
There also has to be emotion. Emotion is what makes the reader care about what is happening. When Sidney Carton goes off to do that "far, far better thing" in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, readers cry. They cry because they care about him. Dickens has made the reader feel Carton's emotions -- his love, his fear. Some of the worst science fiction, especially from the pulp era, involved all the components of plot except emotion. As a result, wonderful ideas were boring.
Now the obvious question is, how does this relate to plot. It relates because it impacts on how you develop your plot. Preferably, your readers will like your protagonist, although that's not necessary. At the very least, they've got to care about something in your story, even if it's just that cute little shark Peter Benchley wrote about in his book, Jaws. More importantly, they need to feel something good, bad, happy, sad, erotic, religious or any other emotion you can think of to have them feel.
How Is A Plot Created?
The trick now is to use (or ignore, if you prefer) all this information to develop a plot. Unfortunately, I don't think there's any one good answer for how to develop a good plot. Some of the ways people approach this task are described below.
One of the more commonly recommended procedures is to create a series of card files, each with a different idea, situation, phrase, device, etc. When creating the plot, the author sorts through the cards to find just the right set of phrases, ideas, objects or scenes. Then they group them together to create the various chapters (elements for a short story). Ray Bradbury supposedly uses a variation on the card file concept. He surrounds himself with all sorts of unique and unusual objects that he can glance at to pick up story ideas.
Some authors have described how they develop chapter-by-chapter outlines. There are too many other sources for information on outlines that are much better than whatever abbreviated discussion I could provide in this limited space. Feel free to do a search (Internet or library) for more information.
I like to maintain what I call a "story bible" that describes each character, each location and each key event so I can refer to it for continuity as I write. Another trick I've tried with some success is to title each chapter and use that title to steer me as I write that chapter. A variation on this is to use a quotation in the same manner. I even know a few folks who just sit down and start writing, not trying to develop a plot until the story begins to take shape.
In his excellent online discussion of plot development entitled Ten Points on Plotting, which I highly recommend, Crawford Kilian describes several additional points. I won't elaborate on each point, but:
|1.||Nothing should happen at random.
Unless you're writing free verse like James Joyce's Ulysses, every event, every conversation, every scene should move the reader inexorably towards the end of your story. Imagine if I interrupted this article for a brief (1000 words) analysis of the difference between "sheet rock" and "plaster board".
|6.||Foreshadow all important elements.
I don't know if it's true, but there's a story that suggests that a well known writer of mystery stories once introduced a new character in the last twenty-five pages of a book in order to resolve a major plot flaw. If you're going to use a gun later in your story, introduce it earlier in the story so the reader is not surprised when your protagonist suddenly whips it out.
|9.||The hero must eventually take charge of events.
At some point in the story, usually once the hero is in the worst situation imaginable (i.e., Indiana Jones tied to a stake with the Ark of the Covenant about to be opened), he, she or it must begin to react, to move to take over control of events.
The following are several excellent sources of information on plot and plot development.
http://www.sff.net/people/SASwann/text/plot.htm#Plot -- "Basic Plotting for Science Fiction" by S. Andrew Swann
http://www.pilot-search.com/links/Writing_Help/Writing_Tips/ -- A list of assorted websites related to writing from Pilot-Search.com.
http://www.cacoethes-scribendi.com/plotindex.html -- Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshops, Plot Workshop.
http://world.std.com/~swrs/plotting.htm -- "How to Plot When You Can't" by Sarah Smith.
http://www.authorlink.com/in801001.html -- "Plotting" by Don Whittington.
http://www.sff.net/people/geoffrey.landis/writing.htm -- "Links for Writers" by Geoffrey A. Landis.
I don't think it matters how you do it. I do encourage you to get out there and do it. The world is still waiting for the next great American novel (or French novel or Taiwanese novel).