Six impossible things

What Kind of Skeleton

I’ve been thinking a lot about the classic plot skeleton lately, for a variety of reasons, and I’ve been getting steadily more annoyed with most of what’s written about it, and about plotting in general.

The trouble is that most of what’s written about plot and plotting is stuff that’s written after the fact – it’s based on critical analysis of books that have already been written. Even the how-to-write books seem to have simply adopted the post-writing analytical outlook, lock, stock, and barrel. You can find some really excellent descriptions of plot structures (Linda Seger’s How to Make a Good Script Great has a terrific description of the three- and five-act structures common in plays, movies, and TV, for instance), but they’re all starting from pretty much the same place – the basic plot skeleton.

What this leaves out is all the other possible structures. To extend the metaphor a bit, not all stories are mammal, with endoskeletons. Some of them are insects that have exoskeletons, or mollusks that have shells, or even octopus- or amoeba-like things that have nothing resembling a skeleton at all.

And none of this is much of any help to a great many writers who are in the process of constructing a story. There are some writers who start with a plot and plan most of the story from there before they start writing, and a lot of others who, regardless of what other bit they started with (characters, setting, theme, idea…) have developed at least a basic sketch of a plot before they start writing.

But I don’t know anyone who sits down and thinks about plot as a plot-skeleton or a three-act, four-act, or five-act structure while they are making it up. The few writers I know who get that analytical about their own work do so only when they know something has gone wrong in the writing, and they’re trying to figure out what.

The thing that does seem to be useful to writers during the actual writing or pre-writing stages is questions. What are the characters trying to do, or achieve? Could it change in the course of the story? What happened five, ten, twenty years ago that set up these characters for whatever is happening now? What does the protagonist want? Why can’t he/she have it? What are they willing to do to get it? Are there societal barriers in the way of the protagonist getting what he/she wants? Or is it something they have internal doubts about for some reason?

Note that none of these questions talking about “what happens next.” “What happens next?” is possibly the most useless question writers can ask themselves; it’s practically guaranteed to create frustration in most folks (though I’ve known one or two who seem to be wired backwards; if you find that asking “what happens next?” provides you with just what you need to go on with, while asking anything more specific brings you to a screeching halt, you are probably another one, and can ignore most of the rest of this post, except as something of academic interest).

The most useful question, for the rest of us, tends to be “Why…?” Why would the protagonist turn left at that corner instead of right? Why would James Q. Villain bother trying to stop the hero? Why did the vampires pick this year to start a labor union, instead of last year or next year? Why was the Super-Duper Gizmo lost in the first place, and why did the hero “just happen” to find it?

These “why” questions lead fairly directly to a cause-and-effect relationship between whatever is going on – this happens, then that happens because of the first thing, which makes something else happen, and so on. For a linear story – one that moves the protagonist chronologically from today through tomorrow to next week and next month until it gets to the climax – this works really well, and quite often gets one to a typical plot-skeleton with very little extra adjusting.

But for those stories that aren’t linear – for ones that move back and forth in time, or that have deliberately circular or spiral structures, or that do other unusual things – the relevant questions may be a bit different. What holds the story together may still be the ups and downs and cause and effect of the events in the protagonist’s life, in which case asking “why” with a focus on the characters or the immediate situation still works pretty well.

If the story has an exoskeleton, though, the right question is more often “What is possible, given the set shape of this story?” or “What needs to happen next to maintain the shape?” In other words, the focus isn’t so much on the characters or the situation as it is on the constraints that the author has decided to place on the story (whether the constraints happen deliberately or inadvertently is a whole ‘nother question). Sometimes, the most useful place to start is “What are the constraints on this story, and why in heaven’s name did I think it was going to be a good idea to do it this way?”

The thing to remember is that all this stuff is voluntary. The author gets to decide whether to start out with a skeleton, or a mollusk shell, or a blob of jelly; whether to do a lot of pre-planning or whether to sit down and just wing it. The writer gets to make up the rules…and if she doesn’t like them, she can make up a different set for the next story.

  1. This is inordinately helpful. I’ve been reading a couple of books on writing that did just this, acted as if everyone picks the structure and goes with it, and . . . yeah, was finding it difficult for my story. I have been trying to concentrate on plot because the last one didn’t have an external plot and people found this difficult, but I’ve been finding it difficult to do the “What next?” route. I’m almost done the first draft, and the shape of the story is still bugging me. New questions ahoy!

  2. I many of the help books go upon the “one size fits all”. They’re very rigid in what one needs to do and that is very discouraging to the neo-writer.

  3. And it doesn’t always work either! Even if you have the perfect plot skeleton, inciting incidents, villains, action, reveals, it doesn’t mean you have a compelling story. Actually asking what your characters would do and why they would do it is so much more important and useful than trying to shoehorn your idea into someone else’s plot skeleton. At least then you have some reason for the reader to keep reading, and some reason for yourself to keep writing.

    Of course, having the various characters interact, building momentum, making plans and then having them go wrong, and coming to a climax have to happen at some point. But hopefully the characters will let you know which ending they’re plunging toward at somepoint. And there’s always revision. 🙂

  4. Thank you! “What next?” always gives me brain freeze, but I didn’t realize it (although I had stopped asking that question) until you stated that most don’t find it helpful. Who knew? Not me!

    I’m really happy to learn that most folks use analysis to diagnose problem, not to guide the actual first draft.

    I stumbled upon a blog wherein the author defines plot structure as 4 phases – set up, reaction, action, and resolution – with a pinch point halfway through reaction, and another halfway through action.

    When I used it to analyze some of my completed stories, I found that the final draft did indeed match his structure. And that the revisions I made to the first draft fixed things like an inadequate set up or bringing “onstage” an “offstage” resolution for a sub-plot story arc. And I’d done it all unconsciously, since all that was before reading his blog.

    BUT . . . when I tried to use it to analyze my WIP . . . well! I couldn’t figure out where I was. I concluded that I couldn’t use the information to guide my story. And I worried about my conclusion!

    Your post here reassures me!

    Although I am now very curious what an exoskeleton or a blob story might look like!

  5. How true! Looking back, I can isolate the incidents where I was becoming frustrated with my writing. It almost always stemmed back to the fact that I was asking myself “what happens next?” If I couldn’t answer that question, I’d go into a long break without writing anything. I love the analogy of there being different skeletons. Love this post 🙂

  6. This is why I love your writing about writing so much. You are one of the very few people (I can’t actually think of another, but I don’t claim my experience is universal) who talks about how to make the components of a plot, as opposed to what things a finished plot should have in it. The latter is about as useful to a struggling writer as telling an aspiring cook they have to make a balanced meal, without giving them any information about food groups or the nutritional content of various ingredients.

    Which reminds me, to overextend my own metaphor, that I’d better go sit down and make my characters eat their broccoli….

  7. I tend to visualize certain scenes in my head of the main character saying or doing something unique. Then I write to get to those scenes. But when I get there, sometimes I have the main character saying or doing the opposite, or another character gets the unique part, or I just drop the scene altogether.

  8. Howdy just happened upon your blog via Yahoo after I typed in, “What Kind of Skeleton – Patricia C. Wrede's Blog” or perhaps something similar (can’t quite remember exactly). Anyhow, I’m pleased I found it because your subject material is exactly what I’m searching for (writing a college paper) and I hope you don’t mind if I collect some information from here and I will of course credit you as the source. Appreciate it.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,