Plot and Structure

How to Shape Your Story and Keep It Moving Forward

Characters in one hand, a conflict in the other—this is the point where you begin structuring a story.

The story's structure is its organizational system, the means by which you establish the relationships of its various elements and bind them into a coherent whole. The structure gives the story its shape in the same way that a framework gives shape to a house.

Most of the time in fiction, structure equates with plot. Although there are other ways to structure a story, a plot is the most common, the most traditional and the most versatile. A plot is what a child wants to hear when, bright-eyed and eager, she begs, "Tell me a story."

What Is a Plot?

Plot is a concept that perplexes a lot of us—nonwriters, new writers, and old pros.

If "Where do you get your ideas?" is the question most frequently asked of writers, the silver medal winner must be: "How do you think up your plots?"

One correct answer is: "One step at a time." An equally accurate response is: "I don't—I let the characters do it for me." You construct a plot bit by bit, by listening to your characters, testing ideas on them, and seeing which ones make them spring to life.

Of all the essential ingredients of a story, plot is perhaps the hardest to grasp. It does not lend itself to easy definitions. The word plot is both verb and noun. It means the process by which you build an idea into a story (I can't go to the movies tonight; I have to buckle down andplot out the short storyl'm writing for class) and it also refers to the structure that results.

PLOT VERSUS PREMISE

"Oh, you're writing a story," your friend says to you. "What's the plot?" What he's really asking for is the premise. It's easy to get the two concepts confused.

In logic or debate, a premise is an assertion that serves as the basis for an argument or for a particular line of reasoning. In fiction writing, think of it as the dramatic situation at the heart of the story, which can be summarized in a line or two. You'll find premises in the log lines in TV Guide and the blurbs in the bestseller list or the book review column: the line or two that reports what the program or book is about. The premise is the cocktail party description, the twenty-five-words-or-less you use in casual conversation, intriguing enough to make people want to read the story yet short enough to keep their eyes from glazing over with boredom. In Hollywood, when moviemakers speak of high concept—a bold, exciting storyline that can be encapsulated in a single sentence—they are referring to a premise.

A plot is something much greater. The plot is what happens in the story, all of its events and actions. To tell your friend the plot, you would have to outline the entire narrative.

PLOTS AND PLANS

One dictionary defines plot as "a series of dramatic events moving forward in time." This is true, but as we'll see, it is only part of the picture—a necessary component, but not sufficient to define a plot.

Take Wednesday morning for example. Your alarm fails to go off, so you awaken late. Getting ready for work, you drop the soap in the shower and slip on it, slamming your knee against the tiles. Your spouse picks an argument with you over breakfast. As you're driving through the commuter traffic, the car in front of you stops suddenly, forcing you to crunch its bumper.

When you limp into the office, your boss announces that the firm has just lost its biggest account. Several employees, you among them, are being laid off.

On this miserable day, you are smack up against dramatic events, and you have plenty of conflict. But you don't have a plot.

Another definition calls a plot "a story's plan of action." By introducing the notion of planning, this moves us a step closer to understanding plot, both the noun and the verb. After all, the words plot and plan are cousins, close to being synonyms.

In Chapter One we noted that, in fiction, events have a purpose. They are hooked to each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces or connect-the-dots lines to carry out the author's intended design. To construct a plot, you make conscious decisions about which of your characters' actions, thoughts, and circumstances are important to tell, and which you should leave out. You choose the ones that will contribute to your story goal, lead to resolution or closure, and reinforce the story's theme, mood, and emotional and dramatic impact.

How do you go about planning, or plotting, your story? That's up to you.

Some authors do extensive preparatory work. They scribble reams of notes, make charts, construct biographies of characters, devise outlines, and lay out a detailed blueprint for the story to come. Only when they think they know the story thoroughly, beginning to end, do they actually start to write it.

Others plunge right into the first draft, hoping to discover the story as it unfolds on the page. In the second draft (or the third or the fourth), once the story has revealed itself, they fine-tune it, sharpening the elements that count and ripping out the ones, however beautifully written, that are not earning their keep.

Many writers combine these two techniques, planning a little, then putting the characters through a few paces on the page, then planning some more when the answer to What happens next? isn't clear. Often it's helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

Are you a planner or a plunger? Finding the approach that works for you is a matter of trial and error. The creative process works differently for each of us, and every story makes its own demands.

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