Understanding Plot

During my short break from writing, I’ve been reading from the book I received at Christmas from my best guy, David.  He picked out just the right book for me from a long list on a site I had found via a writing group on Facebook.  In reading through it, I have come to realize that this is possibly the best resource a new author can have to help refine, and improve, one’s writing skills and make their own work shine more brightly.

So, I decided to do some writing about the articles I’ve been reading.  There are several parts, the first is called The Craft, and it goes over the essentials of writing from the views of different popular authors; such as Terry Brooks, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, and Janet Fitch.  These successful authors give nuggets of wisdom that already have made improvements in my writing even though I haven’t worked on anything in a few days.

This blog is the first bit of writing I’ve done since the last time I posted.

To help pass on this wisdom to others who may not have access to such resources, I’ll give the basics of each chapter as I finish them and reference the books they suggest for examples.  Now, this probably won’t happen everyday, but I’ll try to get something out as often as I can.

Chapter 1 of Section 1: Plot and the Philosophy Behind It  (paraphrased because I think it sounds better)

To keep it simple, the plot of any story is the recap of what a character does to get to a resolution of a predicament they are in and all the steps from beginning to end.  While these predicaments can vary as widely as the stars in the sky, they do fall into their own categories.  You can boil them down into plots that entertain or serious works that shed light on the human condition (or the lack of that light being there).

Entertaining plots put the characters through things which wouldn’t be ordinary or actually encounter.  They can be determined by the genre they fit in, the detective must find the killer, the knight has to defeat the dragon.  The detective can’t just give up and decide to play cards with his poker buddies or the knight bypass the dragons lair to get a burger instead.

In an entertaining work, fiction writers are given the task of giving their main characters a task to accomplish.  Take for instance my short story, The Gift.  Vorn  has to keep a special gift for his wife secret from both her and their children.  But, in the process of trying to keep things low-key, he falls into the devious plans of a rival and ends up with his wife mad at him.  He has to find a way to calm her down enough to get her to see his side of the story before he can give her the thing which started the mess.

The story would be too short and the reader wouldn’t become engaged if he were able to just give the finished trinket to his wife to help ease her anxiety over their relationship after letting her cool off for a day or so.  There’s no life in that kind of writing.  It would be the same as me explaining how I started my day and buttered my toast.  Boring.

Vorn needs to care about what happens and why his wife is so upset.  His mission becomes clear when he finds out his beloved is upset and has gone off to be alone and try to make sense what she had seen and misunderstood.

With serious works, the stories focus more on character development.  We as the reader watch as the lead grows through the course of the story.  They have to reach a specific goal that changes them in some way whether it is for the better or worse.  There are plenty of movies and literary works which are beautiful examples of this sort of writing.  Zorba the Greek is a prime example of this kind of plot writing where you see an uptight bookworm blossom into a life of passion.

All stories should show character growth in some form to make them interesting enough for the reader to keep coming back for more.

What if the plot just doesn’t move like it should; the knight won’t go into the dragon’s lair, or the detective won’t follow the leads he’s given, or what ever it is the character is supposed to do?  The answer is, we have identified too much with the main character.  It isn’t what would they do in the situation.  It has become a ‘what would I do’ in the situation.

This article in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing lists six things to help keep the plot focused on the character and keep you, the writer, writing through their voices and not your own.

1: chart the character’s development through actions 

-no development is set in stone.  It can be revised as you edit to makes more concise and flowing but it does help to have an idea of what is happening to help bring forth this change in them.

2: For works of entertainment, keep track of the character’s major actions and make their motivation known.

-These are things which should be cleverly done and show their resourcefulness as they accomplish their goals/tasks.

3: Brainstorm

-Make a list of things to happen.  They can be as tame or wild as you want, just put them down on paper then decide later which will work best for the piece you are working on.

4: Do interviews or even make a character diary

-This is to help avoid having your character do things the way you would do and make yourself much more familiar with them.  The one character I write the most with, for example,  is Sabbath Silverclaw.  Why?  I have role played with her, delved deep into her mind and made her feel as real to me as my own family.  I know what she likes, doesn’t like, fantasizes about and how she’d react to different situations.  She is a life unto herself in my mind, an entity with depth and a voice of her own compared to other character ideas I’ve had.  You have to think of how they would handle that dragon, or the strange letters appearing in their mail, or why some stranger has ahead full of flames instead of hair like normal people.

5: Use the ‘Would he/she really’ test

-If you aren’t sure your character would do something, sit back and consider what it is they are doing.  Is the reaction something you would do?  Or, is it how they would handle the situation.  If you’d handle a break in by running around and screaming until the police arrived, then don’t have your character who would react differently do that same action.

6: Make sure you pair your characters up so they balance each other.

-A story can get pretty boring if you paired a crotchety old man with a similar old woman. in an action adventure.  neither would really want to get out there and do what it takes.  Pair grandpa up with someone who has more life to them who could goad him into getting out there and doing something to resolve the situation by other than sitting there and watching it happen and shaking his cane at it.  Pair an adventuresome woman with a bookworm to find the treasure, or the introverted and suspicious mage with a rather rowdy and gregarious familiar who doesn’t mind making a little trouble for his master.  Give them similar interests, but don’t make them too much the same or different from each other.

If you start off with well-balanced characters, the plot often finds itself and keeps flowing all the way to the end.

Excerpted and paraphrased from the book ‘The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing’, section one ‘The Craft’, article 1, The Philosophy of Plot Copyright 2002 Writer’s Digest Books