Six impossible things

Basics: Plot, part 2

Quick review: Plot, in its most basic version, goes like this:

  1. A character (or characters) have a problem
  2. Where something important is at stake
  3. That the character(s) care deeply about.
  4. They try to solve the problem, and
  5. Eventually succeed or fail.

I went through the first three in the previous post. The fourth plot question is: What do the characters do to try to solve their problem? This is the part that most people think of as “the plot” – it’s the action, it’s “what happens.” As a result, some authors try to start here and ignore most of the first three points. While it’s not required that everyone work through the points in this order, skipping important aspects of plotting entirely turns out not to work well for most people. Do not do this.

The biggest pitfall of starting with “what happens” is that lots of things can happen without forming a coherent plot. George gets a big new case. Then he is in a car accident. A tornado destroys his house. His oldest son flunks out of college. His wife gets cancer. His dog digs up a bag of heroin in the park. He wins the lottery jackpot. He finds his dentist murdered. An earthquake levels what’s left of the town. He gets mugged on his way to the grocery store. He breaks a leg skiing.

That is a lot of stuff happening, one thing after another, but… it’s all unconnected. There’s no through line. It’s a list of plot-like elements and incidents, but it’s not a plot. Not yet.

To get from a list of incidents to a plot, the writer will have to tease out patterns and possible links between the various plot-like elements, tying things together under One Big Problem. George’s big new case involves a powerful drug ring, who arranged the car accident, mugging, and heroin in the park. The lottery’s an attempted bribe; the son’s flunking is another threat. The other incidents can either drop out or be thrown in as random complications if needed. I now have a problem, and the list has become a list of the actions the bad guys take to solve their problem (George’s interference with their plans). I still have to come up with a set of actions for George to take to try to solve his big problem (the fact that the drug cartel is out to intimidate or kill him), but I’m a lot farther along than I was.

This is also the part of plotting where writing advisors start talking about conflict, and about the standard plot skeleton, as if they were fundamental requirements. They are pretty basic things, but they aren’t actually fundamental to plot (the standard plot skeleton is a structure, which I’ll deal with a few posts down the road). Many, many plots are based on conflicts at various levels – war stories are obvious, political stories can involve conflict between nations, between parties, or between individuals, and so on. But you can also base incidents on obstacles the character faces – the survivors of a plane crash in the Amazonian jungle will face plenty of obstacles like dealing with injuries, finding food, and contacting rescuers without proper equipment, none of which are exactly conflict as most people understand it. Or, one can approach from a different angle: what are the challenges the character(s) face? Rebuilding after a hurricane, recovering from a near-fatal injury, even something as normal as earning a big promotion or learning a new language can be a plot-worthy challenge as long as the character cares and something sufficiently important is at stake.

The final part of the plot is: It ends (point #5). A plot can end in success (happy), or failure (tragedy), or it can have ambiguous aspects, but something is clearly over, finished, and done with. What is over and done with is the central problem or challenge or obstacle, that thing that the characters cared about, had something at stake in, and tried to solve or overcome. When the Death Star blows up, the plot of the first movie is clearly over, even though Darth Vader survived and the rebels haven’t beaten the Empire.

Much writing advice tells you to “know the ending” before you start writing. This does not mean you have to know the details of the Final Battle, the last clue that lets the detective solve the murder, or the exact circumstances that finally elicit the hero’s proposal to the heroine. All it means is that you generally want to know whether you want your character to succeed or fail at solving his/her central problem. You don’t have to know how they do it, where they do it, or what the weather is like when they do it – not until you’re actually writing the scene. You may be a lot happier and more comfortable if you have a clear vision of your ending, but in my experience, knowing whether the hero wins or loses is the main thing you need to know.

Surprisingly, lots of stories fall apart here, too. The writer can’t seem to find a conclusion. Sometimes, this is because the writer doesn’t have a clear idea of what the central problem is, or because they’ve let subplots balloon out of control. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t want to let go of their characters or the story. Don’t worry; you’ll get to spend plenty more time with them in the revisions.

If you prefer, or if it seems to work better for you, you can think of the central plot problem as the big either-or, yes-or-no question of the story. Will George get his life back, or will he get killed by the drug cartel? Will Jennifer beat the Evil Overlord? Will Leo and Chris get together and be happy, or not? One or the other; yes or no. If you haven’t got a “big question” like this, you probably haven’t thought out what the central problem is. If you have half a dozen questions like this, you haven’t decide which one is the central problem. If you know the question, but not the general, yes-or-no answer, you probably haven’t figured out where the story is going.

  1. I’ve been plotting lately, trying to figure out some loose ends before I start drafting. I think I’ve finally figured out some things, but the “how” of the ending is still somewhat of a question. Glad to see it might not always be necessary before I go at it.

  2. I’ve recently come to realize that the fundamental problem I have with two of my WIPs is that the stakes are not high enough. The main characters basically want to go home – but there aren’t any telling consequences if they fail to do so. I haven’t been able to find an easy solution for either of the stories, but at least I know what the problem is.

  3. “the list has become a list of the actions the bad guys take to solve their problem”

    ^^^^ This. This is brilliant. In fact, this entire post is. Thank you. I’ve been stalled out in free fall on my current project, and these problems have a lot to do with it.

  4. Yea! I now what questions to ask of my current WIP. Of course I’m still a bit stuck on which of 4 different (very chatty) side characters have lines that are actually important. Starting to think I’ve either mis-cast the protagonist or need to make this a much longer story.

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