Friday, February 25, 2011

From Once upon a Time to Happily Ever After: Tips on Basic Plotting

Grimm's Fairy Tales (Barnes & Noble Classics)Before you got all cutesy and experimental, you knew what a good plot was, although you may have simply called it “a good story.” You knew it began with “once upon a time,” and that after those words would come some people in some kind of trouble, like a princess stuck in a castle or an evil queen who abused her subjects. You knew that the next part of the story would involve a twist, some kind of event, that would affect this opening scenario, like meeting a wizard or finding a magical stone. You expected a villain, you expected drama, and, if you didn’t get it, you fell asleep or otherwise passed judgment. Finally, no matter what had happened, you expected a happy ending, usually involving people getting married and living “happily ever after.”
Aristotle laid down
the rules for good
plots all the way back
in 335 BC in the Poetics.

You knew about plot long before you knew about anything else involving storytelling. You knew that a good plot begins with a conflict (“once upon a time, a princess was trapped in a tower”), moves to a crisis (“one day, an ugly wizard suddenly appeared”), gets more exciting with each subsequent crisis (“the wizard could let her out, but he demanded her beauty in return”), achieves a climax (“the princess accepted the bargain!”), and ends with a resolution (“the ugly princess lived happily ever after, while the beautiful wizard was stuck in the tower forever”).

There are many variations on this basic plot structure, but every good story ever told follows it to some degree. There is the notion of reversal, for example, where, just when you think the conflict is about to be resolved, something unexpected happens that makes the situation even worse. The cops finally capture the murderer, and then it turns out it was somebody else who is getting away. There’s dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters. Suzy is absentmindedly taking off her clothes, getting ready for bed, but you know the killer’s hiding in the closet! Run, Suzy! Plot is what creates tension. Stories that are referred to as “page-turners” are so because they are excellently plotted, because there is never a moment when you feel the absence of tension long enough to put the book down. You are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next. In longer works, such as novels, there might be mini-resolutions along the way, a moment when one conflict is resolved before another takes its place, usually at the chapter break. Overall, however, the tension is constant and building, as if climbing a mountain.

What it is important for you to understand beyond these basics is that there are good plots and bad plots, and that even a great plot all alone cannot carry a story.

One reason why a bad plot is bad is because it’s unbelievable in some way. What are the chances that the very person you needed to talk to that morning would be the one you would crash into on your way home from work? Never subordinate plot to your storytelling needs. I understand that you need your protagonist to find out that his wife is cheating on him, but does he have to find the compromising pictures mixed in with the bills? What kind of an idiot leaves compromising pictures just lying around like that? Ridiculous plot moments let the reader see the machinery of the story. It’s the writing equivalent of leaving the house with your underwear showing.

But maybe the cheating wife is an idiot. In that case, good for you! You are paying attention to the relationship between plot and characterization. Good plots don’t exist in a vacuum; they are good only insofar as they make sense given the characters involved. If your cheating wife is a normal person doing a sneaky thing, she would not leave her compromising pictures where her husband could easily find them. It would be out of character. If, however, you establish the fact that she’s absentminded, that she’s constantly locking her keys in the car and forgetting to take her birth control pill, we might be more willing to believe that she’s tossed the incriminating pics in with the water bill. In other words, you must provide a justification for the events that happen in your stories.

Exterior conflicts are usually a lot less satisfying to the educated reader than interior ones precisely because of the interplay between plot and characterization. Explosions and unclaimed bags of money are not de facto interestingit’s the different ways different people react to them that capture our attention. Excessively plot-driven stories may give us an initial thrill, but they are quickly forgotten. Once you see the guy who fell out of the airplane land safely on a giant ball of cotton, you really don’t get the same effect the second time around. Interior conflicts, on the other hand, conflicts between good and evil and all the shades in between, between this decision and that one, human conflicts, are always more engaging, because they force us to confront our own fears and beliefs. The best plots are those where interior and exterior conflicts work together, where the character is plagued by doubts over what to do with the rest of her life, and so she does nothing. Lies around on the couch, keeps a blog nobody reads. Normally, these non-actions don’t look like a plot, but, in conjunction with a character’s interior conflict, they make a story.

Never resolve your story on one level and forget the other, however. The beginning writer often rushes to end the story via exterior conflict. You’re writing a love story, and it’s gotten messy. The couple’s broken up, and the one clearly in the wrong finally makes up her mind to seek the lover out and beg his forgiveness. Alas, at the very moment when she makes this decision, she sees on the news that there’s been a horrible accident . . . . Of course, it’s the beloved, and the reconciliation will never happen!


Taco Bell Salsa con Queso, Cheese Dip, Medium, 15 oz. (Pack of 4)
You want chips
with that plot?
Apart from the pure queso of such a plot, the problem is that killing off a character does not address the story’s interior conflict. The problem here isn’t that these two people existed; it’s that they, for whatever reason, could not get along. Killing one of them off does not resolve their true problem, it just prevents it from being resolved. Such an “ending” is more than just corny, it’s the opposite of what an ending should be. Rather than feel a sense a resolution, the reader feels cheated. Would the offended lover have accepted the apology? Guess we’ll never know!

Always resolve your plots on the interior level first. Whatever dilemma your protagonists have been struggling with needs to be resolved in some way, and any exterior event that takes place at the same time can symbolize this resolution. Let’s go back to our broken couple: the one clearly in the wrong finally makes up her mind to seek the lover out and beg his forgiveness. On her way to meet him, she realizes she has spent the entirety of this relationship apologizing to this man. True, she’s a flirt, a ditz, she forgets to take her birth control pills and leaves incriminating photos with the water bill. But he’s so demanding, constantly pointing out her flaws, so hard to please. He won’t even let her eat pizza in peace, she remembers, taunting her about her fat thighs and what does she expect.

Instead of pulling into the driveway of his mother’s house, where he’s been staying, she keeps driving to the little pizza parlor down the road, and scarfs down a whole large pie, with extra cheese, all by herself.

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza - Gino's East Deep Dish Pizzas
A good ending.
It may seem that having pizza is a lot less “dramatic” than a big car crash where people die, but it is a better ending to this story because it addresses the protagonist’s interior conflict. She realizesshe has an epiphanythat she has been wrong, but not in the way she thought, and all her conflicts about how to keep this man just disappear. The conflict disappearsnot the character. That is what gives the story its sense of resolution. A car crash is nothing but a deus ex machina, an artificial way of resolving conflict, like having a god step in.

Finally, also be aware that plots can be as cliché as language or characters. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, writer loses reader. You do not want been-there-done-that, nor some corny variation like boy meets girl, boy kills girl . . . . Ha ha ha, you are so clever. No. You will be drawn to a cliché plot if you are thinking about it apart from the other elements of your story, especially character. Don’t have a detailed plot laid out before you get to know your characters. Or, be prepared to tinker with the plot as your characters come alive. The best writing is organicstart with a premise, a conflict, a setting, some people. Put them in a little terrarium, see what happens. Let the story tell itself. Water it, fertilize it, prune it. Give it air and sunshine.

Pigeon FeathersBut most of all, don’t ignore it. We seem to have built some kind of chasm between “plot-driven” and “character-driven” writing, with plot-driven stories completely ignoring character and vice versa, and highbrow readers scoffing at plot as if it were solely a matter of bombs and car crashes and space invaders. The “serious” writers seem shy of any sort of event, with long, meandering, indeciferable stories where nothing happens. For mecall me retro, bourgeois, Ishmaelthe best stories are those where plot and character are symbiotic. When I teach plot, I always use Updike’s “A&P.” No bombs, crashes, or cops herejust three girls walking through a supermarket in their bathing suits, and a boy whose life is changed by this small event. You can learn everything you will ever need to know about plot from this story. But chances are that you know most of what you need already: once upon a time, in walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.

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