Plotting the Plot – not as tough as it seems?

There is an interesting blog post over at Strictly Writing that discusses PLOT – that big shiny godawful element to writing that seizes the intestinal tract of a lot of very lovely people. It asks the age-old question of whether craft kills creativity – whether worrying about plot kills the development of characters and scene building because writers are trying to follow a formula.

I’m a big advocate of knowing all about these goodies so that writers can be as effective as possible. However, I think there’s something to that notion of TMI getting in the way of creativity. Now don’t start throwing eggs at me. I see a lot of authors whose quills are in a bunch because they’re so hindered by “following the rules” that they can’t just sit down and write. And the biggie is PLOT. After all, absent a plot, why bother?

Definition of Plot

Dictionary.com says this about Plot:

Also called storyline. the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.

Wikipedia gets a bit more mouthy:

A literary term, a plot is all the events in a story particularly rendered toward the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect or general theme.

The idea is that the main character has some sort of dilemma, or personal conflict and the story focuses on what will happen depending on the choices the main character(s) take. And this applies to fiction and nonfiction.

I’ll agree that sometimes it’s just not that simple – hence my fondness for Steve Almond’s take on plot [as lifted from the Strictly Writing blog]:

“Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.”

That statement is so much easier to wrap my head around than all the various books that discuss PLOT. Storylines are as varied as the weeds vying for superstar status in my backyard, so how can we possibly adhere to a stringent set of rules that could hinder our writing?

Answer? We don’t. We sit back, relax, and write. Those deepest fears and/or desires can take all kinds of shape – Grant needs to find out who’s blackmailing him so he can regain his reputation, wife, and job back…Alice suffers a nasty divorce decides to travel to Tibet and live in a monastery in order to find God after her life falls apart…Joe’s life isn’t working out as planned, and he realizes it’s because of his horrendous childhood.

Know ’em to break ’em

But hold on now, you’re not completely off the hook. You need to be aware of the hard basics of PLOT construction in order to know how to break them. Michelle suggests that in many ways PLOT is simple, even a trifle boring, and advocates using PLOT as your story’s skeleton so you can fully develop your characters and scenes. I totally get that, it’s a “get out of your own way” thing. However, I see far too many writers take Michelle’s advice too literally and find PLOT not only boring, but nonexistent. Eeeek.

Living on a farm and milking cows is not a plot. It’s a description. What is it about living on that farm and milking cows that makes us want to read that book? If the writer employs Almond’s simple statement:  “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires,” then this forces the writer to dig deeper and find the raison d’etre for their story.

Getting past the front gates

Now before you go dancing in the streets shouting, “Free! Free! Good holy transitional phrase, I’m free!” remember that you still have to get past us – agents and editors. You are far from being let off the hook. There still has to be some element that grabs the reader enough to want to buy the book.

I’m currently reading Eat, Pray, Love – I know, I’m behind the times, so sue me. This book could easily be a dullish diary about a woman who takes a year to live in three different countries. Travelogue? Well, yes, there are those elements. However, Elizabeth Gilbert defined the same question every author has to ask him/herself: What fears and/or desires am I/my protagonist forced to face?”

The result is a rich inner journey of the same kind of turmoil, fear, search/questioning of faith, and resolution that affects all of us at one time or another. It has universal appeal, and it’s Gilbert’s voice and talent that lift this book off the ground and into the stratosphere. IMO, that is.

But this book could have just as easily been a misfire. No one minds a thin plot – as can be confirmed with Eat, Pray, Love – but you have to have a rich, bountiful foundation in which to appeal to an agent’s or editor’s senses. We are always thinking, “Is this marketable?”

And this comes down to how well you get your point across in your story. And more importantly, your query letter. It could have been that the farm story was filled with the same kind of abundance of Eat, Pray, Love, but the author failed to express what those elements were.

So, on one hand, you can take a small breather and try not to allow your knowledge to hog tie your writing by constantly second guessing yourself. Certainly for your first draft, shove the rules out the door and let the plot be a mere skeleton. Barf that story out. When you go back for your rewrites, drag those tools out and start putting them to use.

And don’t forget the margaritas. It helps a great deal. You may even borrow the beagle.

11 Responses to Plotting the Plot – not as tough as it seems?

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Borrow the beagle? I do have a nice lap she can use for a while.

  2. Chris says:

    Hang on a minute…i didn’t know there were rules that had to be followed. What happens if following the rules messes a writer up? Or is that even possible?

  3. ‘Tis ok, Chris, you followed the rules and didn’t realize it. Lucky you!

    And yes, I’ve seen writers who were very hung up on following all the “rules” and ended up producing a technically perfect manuscript that had little life to it. It’s all about balance. Know the techniques that go into writing so you know how to break them effectively BUT keep them somewhat in the background so it doesn’t stifle the creativity.

  4. Chris says:

    You writers are a smart bunch! Trust me I saw tons of them at the first writers conference, or was it convention I went to last year. I felt waaaay overwhelmed.

  5. Well you shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed, Chris. You’re a wonderful writer!

  6. territiffany says:

    Today I received some scores back from a contest. Made me think maybe I’ll never get good enough to write fiction–with all the details that go into a good construction. Then I decided to not write again until I can come up with a great plot. Reading your post has helped. Thank you.

  7. suemont says:

    Thanks, Lynn, for the link to Strictly Writing. They now have a new follower.

    Thanks too for your fuller tips and explanation – as usual they seem to me spot on. Problem is, why don’t I think about them first? Never mind, I’ll always have you to tell me – I hope.

  8. e.lee says:

    hahah I’ll take your advice about the margaritas

  9. s0beurself says:

    I think following rules is dangerous advice. Rules is just another word for convention, something every [fiction] writer should steer clear of. I prefer a more organic approach to plot, taking scenes and fleshing them out, exploring how they’re related to one another in ways rooted in conflict. So, I guess my definition would be: Plot summarizes a character’s inner and outer conflicts as they relate to the story.
    Approaching plot as something independent of characters risks making those characters secondary to ‘plot.’

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