What Is Plot

THE COMMON DEFINITION OF PLOT is that it's whatever happens in a story. That's useful when talking about completed stories, but when we're considering stories being written, it's about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn't tell you how to make one.

Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences. Taking a shower isn't necessarily plot, or braiding one's hair, or opening a door. Let's call them incidents. They happen, but they don't lead to anything much. No important consequences.

But if the character is Rapunzel, and the hair is what's going to let the prince climb to her window, braiding her hair is a crucial action. If the character is Bluebeard's newest wife, opening the forbidden door which reveals the corpses of her predecessors is a pivotal point. Taking a shower is, in Psycho, considerably more dramatic and shocking than the theft of a large sum of money, both in itself and in terms of its later repercussions. By the way they're weighted and presented, by what they lead to, these events are transformed from incident to plot.

A grammar school play in which a little girl dresses up in a frame of chickenwire and canvas to portray a ham, representing Pork, could be trivial, a mere incident; but in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the chickenwire costume is what prevents Scout Finch from being stabbed by a man with a murderous grudge against her lawyer father.

The wearing of the costume has important consequences and makes a meaningful difference in the story's fictional world.

It's a cause that has significant effects. Cause and effect: that's what makes plot.

The Border of Actuality

Plot is the things characters do, feel, think, or say, that make a difference to what comes afterward.

If you once thought about dying your hair pink but never acted on the thought, that tells something about your psychology, but it's not a potential story plot. If you really went ahead and did it, that not only tells about your psychology but creates repercussions, like a stone tossed in a pond. That might become the basis for a story like Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."

Thought or emotion crosses the line into plot when it becomes action and causes reactions. Until then, attitudes, however interesting in themselves, are just potential, just cloudy possibilities. They're static. They're not going anywhere. Nothing comes of them.

No thought, in and of itself, is plot. No action, however dramatic, is plot if the story would have been about the same if it hadn't happened at all. Any action, however seemingly trivial, can be vital and memorable if it has significant consequences and changes the story's outcome.

Plotting is a way of looking at things. It's a way of deciding what's important and then showing it to be important through the way you construct and connect the major events of your story. It's the way you show things mattering.

What's at Stake?

For a reader to care about your story, there has to be something at stake—something of value to gain, something of value to be lost. Paul Boles, in his book Storycrafting, called it "wrestling," and I like that image because, unlike "theme" or "message," it doesn't imply something that could be painted on a billboard or winkled out of a fortune cookie. Wrestling is something specific happening: two strong forces are meeting, one of them tri umphing over the other—for better or for worse.

One of the forces may be external to the main character (protagonist): a villain, an opponent, a set of circumstances, a feature of the environment or of the landscape. Or both forces may be within the protagonist: the fear of doing something wrestling with the need to do it; a sense of injury wrestling with love or admiration, as with a person of any age trying to come to terms with a demanding parent.

Bringing out the importance of seemingly small things leads to subtlety, drama; showing large things grappling and clashing is melodrama, of which more in Chapter 7.

You have to convince the reader not only that something is happening, but that what's happening matters intensely—not just to the writer, but to the characters involved.

In Golding's Lord ofthe Flies, what's at stake is survival itself. A group of boys are trying to stay alive, solely by their own efforts, on an otherwise uninhabited tropical island. At least, that's the external form of their struggle. Internally, it's the battle between fear and courage, distrust of the unknown and the will to find out, as played out within individual characters like the protagonist, Ralph; visionary Simon; and Jack, leader of the hunters. It's not only survival at stake, but a particular, civilized kind of survival.

In other words, there can be an outer plot and an inner one which in some sense mirrors and reinforces it, or conflicts and contrasts with it. Or either outer plot or inner plot may stand alone as the main focus of the necessary struggle played out in actions, through scenes.

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