Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, April 4, 2022

Scrivening 6: Just One Dang Thing After Another

'A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.'

-- E.M. Forster,
in Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing

Previously in this series, we covered the Structure of a Story, including the Title, the Beginning, and the Body and Conclusion. Now, we will take a different dimension viz., Plot (this post) then Character (next)

Plotting along

Recall that fictions have four main structural dimensions: 

  1. Idea: what the Story is About, its Theme.
  2. Setting: the milieu in which the Story takes place; i.e., time, place, atmosphere, etc., the Worldbuilding
  3. Characters: the People who act out the Story. 
  4. Plot: the Events through which the Story is acted .

The Idea dimension is not shown.

These dimensions are independent of one another. You can have an exciting plot featuring cardboard characters; vivid characters in a ho-hum plot. Nancy Kress once said of a national best-seller that the characters had all the depth pf wallpaper -- but she could not stop turning the pages. The best fiction hits on all three scales rounded characters in an intriguing plot in a vivid setting. If in addition the fiction has a captivating Theme/Idea, you hit the quadrafecta.

When I showed the Story Cube to Nancy many years ago, she suggested the Wordsmithing (Gallishaw's "charm of phrasing") by which the Story is expressed as  a fifth dimension. 

It is an excellence of a Story, to be sure, and inseparable from it, but it is not a distinct dimension of the story. Compare the writing to Form in Aristotelian hylemorphism. (You weren't expecting the Ol' Stagirtem were you?) Matter (hyle) is pure potential. It is Form (morphe) that makes it real. Imagine imagine Don Quixote written in the Form of a travelogue or as if by Ernest Hemingway. It would not be the same book!

What Gallishaw terms "charm of phrasing" as one of his Laws of Interest cannot be taught, though it can be learned. Plot, characterization, worldbuilding... these are mechanical skills and like saws, hammers, and planes, their use may be taught. But that doesn't mean you can build a cabinet. Hemingway, when asked what the hardest part of writing was, answered, "Getting the words right." There are authors who are read for their style as much as for their mechanics. R.A.Lafferty is one. (Arrive at Easterwine, Okla Hannali, The Fall of Rome, "Land of the Great Horses," "Narrow Valley," "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," and so on.)

Nine and sixty Ways

In "Body Building" (Part 4), we saw that the Plot of a Story is the sequence of the Fifth Steps of Encounters (i.e., the Crisis Points) arranged for best artistic effect. How to arrange them is plotting; but...

"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right!" 

-- Rudyard Kipling, "In the Neolithic Age"

 Plotting is tough work. It must cohere, part to part. It must fulfill its inner logic. It must flow from the characters acting for their own reasons, not what the writer orders them to do to satisfy a plot point. But even masters fall into plot holes. Spider Robinson once pointed out a gigantic plot hole in the movie, Citizen Kane. The entire film involves a reporter trying to discover the meaning behind Kane's dying word, "Rosebud." But the movie shows Kane uttering this word while alone. The nurse enters the room after he has died. So how did anyone know what his last word was? 

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try
to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible... The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.

--Stephen king, On Writing

Some writers make detailed plots ahead of time. You wouldn't try to build a house without a blueprint, right? This might include maps of the locale (esp. if it's fictional) and precis of the characters, as well as a step-by-step of the events. 

Other writers prefer to "pants it." They just sit down and start writing, to find out for themselves what happens. In effect, their first draft is their outline. But this runs the risk of losing track of the plot; especially if there are multiple characters, story lines, etc. 

TOF often uses "retrospective plotting." He pants it until he gets into the kimchee, then backtracks and outlines what he's already written. In The January Dancer,he had multiple characters on different planets doing different things and travel from one place to another consumed time. You couldn't have a cowboy cross Arizona on horseback in a single day, nor take the subway from Harlem to Penn Station in a minute and a half. For the work-in-progress In the Belly of the Whale, he made a matrix, one row per character with the columns being the chapters, to keep straight what had to happen before/after other events.

Most plot 'formulas' are not especially helpful. Still, don't start cooking unless you have a recipe.

Making a Dent in the Plot

Lester Dent, who wrote most of the Doc Savage novels under the house name
Kenneth Robeson, produced a fairly rigid plot outline that works for the old 6000-word pulp stories of action/adventure (but would not work at all for a romance. For that matter, few "novels" these days run 6000 words). He comments that his 'formula' is more like a checklist to help the writer not miss any key points. He was under no illusion that he was writing Literature, just "reams and reams of sellable crap."

He recommends first deciding on one or more of the following:

  • a different murder method for the villain to use
  • a different thing for the villain to be seeking
  • a different locale
  • a menace which is to hang like a cloud over the hero

"Different" here means not the same-o, same-o. Even if the villain just shoots his victim, have the shootings take place in unusual circumstances or the body laid out in unusual fashion. And for a treasure try something different from the usual money or jewels. Maybe bearer bonds (Die Hard) or letters of transit (Casablanca). Once these things are decided, locale suggests itself.

Then you divide the 6000 word "novel" into 1500-word sections. In each section, hit the following points.

PART I

  • First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved — something the hero has to cope with.
  • The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
  • Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  • Hero's endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  • Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

PART II

  • Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  • Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  • Another physical conflict.
  • A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

PART III

  • Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  • Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  • A physical conflict.
  • A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

PART IV

  • Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  • Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  • The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  • The mysteries remaining — one big one held over to this point will help grip interest — are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  • Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
  • The snapper, the punch line to end it.

Rule of Three

In other words, it's One-Two-Three-Finale. If you up the stakes twice or toss two obstacles in the hero's path, the reader may not find the ending worthwhile. Four crises or obstacles may lead the reader to shout Just Get On With It. Three crisis points of increasing difficulty seem satisfactory. But like all "rules" in writing, they can be broken. The trick is to know when and how to break them.

Strategies

"Your brain is not a storage device; it's a processing device." 

-- Harry Bingham, Jericho Writers 

That being the case, don't try to keep everything in your head. Use structures, notes, outlines, and so on. Otherwise, a character with an icy gray stare in one chapter may have eyes green with envy in another. TOF once wrote a story in which a walk-on character was named Alice when she first appeared, but became Agnes by the story's end. The editor didn't catch it, either.

A useful trick is to give each Scene a title to remind you of the scene purpose of conflict. For example, a scene introducing Adam Apple can be titled Adam On-stage, a scene showing clash between Adam and Betsey Boop can be titled Adam and Betsey clash. (You don't have to be clever with scene titles. You will eliminate them in second draft, anyway.) This helps create the outline, either prospectively as a guide or retrospectively as a sanity check. For example, In the Belly of the Whale has the following scene titles, each of which introduces a character and a plot problem:

1.    Role Call
The Whale as she was – In the Burnout – ‘Excellence, we have a problem’ – Damned capewalkers – Nobody’s body – Ling-ling shows her ankle – Kicking the can down the road – A pedestrian observation. 

Some strategies for plotting your book, outlined by Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers are as follows:

1. Use a Three-Act movie structure. 

Act I. The first 25% is the Set-up. Give the reader a sense of the status quo. The Chief Actor is called to action. There is debate/uncertainty. The Actor initially refuses, but then sets forth [at least metaphorically].
Act II. The Middle 50%. Introduce the love story or other secondary storyline. The main story starts to unfold. At the midpoint, everything seems great (or awful). The Baddies start to close in
Act III. The final 25% is Crisis and Resolution. All is lost The dark night of the soul. Introduce a fresh idea/inspiration. The protagonist sets out with new determination into the grand finale.

2. What if? Dream up a situation and let your characters flail. Stephen King's strategy works if there are not too many characters or timelines to keep straight, the structure is loose, and there is no a complex mystery. Otherwise, you may get tangled up in your own ad hockery.

3. Suspense/mystery structure. In the suspense structure, each chapter destabilizes the current status quo. Jane Austen
structured her novels this way. In a mystery structure, the emphasis is on what happened in the past, and the plot is driven by clues and revelations, as in Christie's Miss Marple stories. The mystery need not be a crime. Think of ghosts, family secrets, a curious letter, odd behavior of a friend, et al. If you place the "detective" in jeopardy as well, you add suspense to mystery. and start two plot drivers.  See Jack McDevitt's A Talent for War.

4. Snowflake. Build your novel up in layers. Start simple and add more detail as you go along.

a. Write a one-sentence version of your story. <20 words
b. Expand to a one paragraph version (3 disasters + an ending, as Dent, above)
c. Write a brief sketch for each character
d. Expand the story to a one page version.
e. Expand the character sketches to one page/character.
f.  Expand  the story to a four-page synopsis.
g. Finalize your characters.
5. Parallel Notes

Starting with the one sentence as before, make three parallel sheets and add to them as you go along..

a. Story notes. What is the Status Quo? How is it disrupted? What disasters will overtake the Chief Actor? Add other Big Scenes as they occur to you from time to time.
b. Character notes. List the major characters, add their past, their goals, their personality traits, personal appearances, et al.. This may protect you against contradicting yourself as you write.
c. Setting notes. Where does the story take place? In SF and fantasy stories, this may be a complex set up (Ringworld; Middle Earth); but think also of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or "Ed McBain's" Isola for his 87th Precinct procedurals.
TOF used this method for The January Dancer. He made maps, calculated travel times between stars, interviewed characters, et al.

People, being people, cannot resist analyzing and classifying things, and Plot is no exception. George Polti famously analyzed ancient Greek and Latin plays as well as French novels, and came up with a list of 36 Dramatic Situations for all literature. Some WWWeb crawlers have supposed these to be 36 possible Plots; but they are not Plots. They are Dramatic Situations that may arise within Plots. Several may arise in the course of a Novel. Also, they are very broad and generic. For example,  
#6 Disaster is described by Polti as "a calamitous event occurs" (well, duh?).
What an author might do with a Situation so broad includes such diverse things as the collapse of a galactic empire (Foundation, Asimov), a natural disaster (The Rift, Williams), or the loss of a spouse (Gone Girl, G. Flynn). Anything that makes the Chief Actor's world collapse around him.
Likewise, Polti's #31, Conflict with a god betrays its origin in ancient Greek drama. On the face of it, this one may seem obsolete in the Late Modern Age. But we can interpret it as conflict with an all-powerful person or institution (1984, Orwell).
Reviewing Polti's list may give you ideas for the kinds of Encounters you will choose for your story. For example, imagine the following plotline:
26. Crimes of love. A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship. (See Dick. See his sister Jane. See Dick do Jane).
27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one. The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One. (See older brother Mac walk in on Dick and Jane while they are doing it.)
28. Obstacles to love. Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. (See Dick and Jane bug out.)
05. Pursuit. The fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict. (See Mac chase Dick and Jane through fields and forest.)
01. Supplication. The suppliant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor. (See Dick and Jane reach the North Pole, where they appeal to Santa. Santa, who knows who's naughty or nice, reveals that Dick is adopted, so Jane is not his true sister. Mac kills him anyway, not getting the memo in time.)

Plot Templates

Some folks have gone so far as to categorize entire plots. Some, like the Hero's Journey, seem to have merit and can be applied to Modern Novels. For example, the SF novel Up Jim River is a Hero's Journey, sort of. Maybe two of them.
In The Seven Basic Plots, by the delightfully-named Christopher Booker, the author describes nine basic plots, two of which he disses as unworthy or something. Again, what we see is a classification so generic as to be nearly useless. Booker's generic plots appear below, but you can no more plot a novel by following these templates than you can ride a bike by reading the schematics. Too rigorous an application will make your novel Blatantly Formulaic. Since all the examples cited by the reviewer are movies, that may say something about the state of the film industry. 
Even worse are computerized "plot generators," in which the "author" inputs certain details, like emotions to be expressed and an Artificial Stupid spins a story out of them, a dystopia foreseen by TOF in the short story "Spark of Genius" (Analog, Jan 1991) well before there was any such thing.
Booker's "basic plots" are
  1. Overcoming the Monster: in which the hero must venture to the lair of a monster which is threatening the community, destroy it, and escape (often with a treasure). Think Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. But the monster might be a band of outlaws threatening a Western town.
  2. Rags to Riches: in which someone who seems quite commonplace or downtrodden but has the potential for greatness manages to fulfill that potential. (Starman Jones, Heinlein)
  3. The Quest: in which the hero embarks on a journey to obtain a great prize that is located far away. (The January Dancer, Flynn)
  4. Voyage and Return: in which the hero journeys to a strange world that at first is enchanting and then so threatening the hero finds he must escape and return home to safety. (Wizard of Oz, Baum)
  5. Comedy: in which a community divided by frustration, selfishness, bitterness, confusion, lack of self-knowledge, lies, etc. must be reunited in love and harmony (often symbolized by marriage). (The Prince and the Pauper, Twain)
  6. Tragedy: in which a character falls from prosperity to destruction because of a fatal mistake. (Macbeth, Shakespeare)
  7. Rebirth: in which a dark power or villain traps the hero in a living death until he/she is freed by another character's loving act. (Sleeping Beauty)
  8. Rebellion Against 'The One': in which the hero rebels against the all-powerful entity that controls the world until he is forced to surrender to that power. (1984, Orwell)
  9. Mystery: In which an outsider to some horrendous event (such as a murder) tries to discover the truth of what happened. (A Talent for War, McDevitt)
What you ought to do is just write your story or novel. Afterwards, you may notice it fits into one of the generic plots. I did not have "The Quest" in mind when I wrote The January Dancer. But it does fit. A flavor of these templates, most of which Booker presents in Five Acts, can be seen in his schematic for
1. Overcoming the Monster
  • Act I. Anticipation: The threat of the Monster becomes known.
  • Driver. The Call: The Hero is called upon to confront the Monster.
  • Act II. Dream: All begins well as the Hero prepares to face the Monster.
  • Act III. Frustration: Coming face-to-face with the Monster, the Hero appears to be outmatched.
  • Act IV. Nightmare: The final battle with the Monster, which seems hopeless for the Hero.
  • Final Driver. Hero overcomes the Monster, escapes (possibly with a treasure or Princess) and gains a kingdom. 
As you can see, this does not help you write Sackett (Louis L'Amour), let alone Dune (Frank Herbert). For example, in Sackett, newly married William Tell Sackett returns from scouting the route ahead to find his wife and covered wagon missing. While searching for them, he is shot and falls over the edge of the mesa [though he is fortuitously saved by a ledge]. The remainder of the novel concerns Tell's recovery and his discovery of his bride's fate, of the monster that killed her; his frustration by the layers of protection the villain can call upon, and the hopeless final battle from which he emerges improbably victorious, with the aid of his two brothers, Orrin and Tyrell. 
Similarly, in Dune, Paul Atreides must confront the monster who massacred his House and family. Baron Harkonnen is vastly wealthy and Paul is a refugee in the desert. But the Atreides were bullfighters, and "Harkonnen" comes from a Finnish word for "bull." Put it together.
Robert A Heinlein divided Science Fiction stories into Gadget stories and Human Interest stories. The latter, he further divided into
  1. Boy Meets Girl, 
  2. The Little Tailor, and 
  3. The Man Who Learned Better
 About these, he wrote:
  1. Boy-meets-girl needs no definition. But don’t disparage it. It reaches from the “Iliad” to John Taine’s Time Stream. It’s the greatest story of them all and has never been sufficiently exploited in science fiction. It has great variety: boy-fails-to-meet-girl, boy-meets-girl-too-late, boy-meets-too-many-girls, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-renounce-love-for-higher-purpose. 
  2. The “Little Tailor.” This is an omnibus for all stories about the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa. [You will recognize this as Booker's Rags to Riches.] 
  3. The man-who-learned-better. Just what it sounds like—the story of a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts.

-- "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" (Robert A. Heinlein)

Contest

What stories or novels have had especially intriguing plots, in your opinion?

Referenda

  1. Block, Lawrence. Writing the Novel: from Plot to Print. Writers Digest Books (July 1, 1985)
  2. Gallishaw, John. Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer. G. P. Putnam's Sons; Later Printing edition (January 1, 1930)
  3. Kress, Nancy. Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer's Digest Books (March 21, 2011)
  4. Meredith,  John D. and Robert C. Fitzgerald. Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript. Everyday Handbooks; Reprint edition (January 1, 1972)


 


2 comments:

  1. I just want to say, thank you so much for the time and effort you have put into this series. It is deeply appreciated. I get very excited every time a new installment comes out. (In fact, I'm always happy to see your activity on your blog.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have never met a writer who claimed that those plot type lists helped.

    (I have met some who used lists of character types. One used them to prevent her characters from being all the same type, and another to see if she needed to develop her character more because she could id their types.)

    ReplyDelete

Whoa, What's This?

adam amateur theology anthropology aphorisms Aquinas argument from motion Aristotelianism art atheism autumn of the modern ages books brains breaking news captive dreams cartoon charts chieftain clannafhloinn comix commentary counterattack crusades culcha dogheads easton stuff economics eifelheim evolution factoids on parade fake news fallen angels Feeders fir trees in lungs firestar flicks floods flynncestry flynnstuff forecasts forest of time fun facts gandersauce gimlet eye global warming glvwg headlines henchmen high frontier history home front how to lie with statistics humor Hunters Moon hush-hush hypatia in the house of submission irish Iron Shirts irrationalism january dancer jihad journeyman kabuki kool letter lion's mouth lunacon maps mayerling medieval metrology miscellany modern mythology moose zombies music new years nexus odds odds and ends paleofuture passing of the modern age philosophy philosophy math poetry politics potpourri psyched out! public service quality quiet sun quote of the day razor's edge redefinition of marriage religio reviews river of stars scandal science science marches on scientism scrivening shipwrecks of time shroud skiffy skiffy in the news skools slipping masks some people will believe anything stats stories stranger things the auld curmudgeon the madness continues the new fascism the russians are coming the spiral arm the writing life thomism thought for the day thread o' years tofspot topology untergang des abendlandes untergang des morgenlandes up jim river video clips vignettes war on science we get letters we're all gonna die whimsy words at play wuv xmas you can't make this stuff up