Wednesday, 12 November 2008

This article appeared on Starship Sofa on 12th November 2008. Comments, discussion, disagreement welcome.

Plot Part 2:

Plot Part 2. As usual, I'll be doing this in one take, partly because I believe in spontaneity but mostly because I don't know how to use the pause button on the recording software.

So, apparently George Clooney was driving home from the film set one day when he spotted a painting thrown away in a skip. It was of a huge, naked woman; the worst painting he'd ever seen. Instead of driving by, he did what an author would do: got a flash of inspiration and nabbed the painting.

Then, he stopped meeting his mates on a Monday night, telling them he was going to art classes instead. He said it was having a therapeutic effect and even insisted on taking them to art fairs and shops. This went on for six months, then he proudly presented what he said was his first painting to a friend, but which of course was the one he'd found in the skip, signed by him. His friend thought it was awful but agreed to hang it on his living room wall to please George. Weeks later, Clooney finally confessed on live TV, no doubt deciding that all those months were worth it for the audience's reaction and the expression he'd see later on his friend's face.

So plotting a story is exactly like pulling off a practical joke. You need an idea, a situation, a planned series of events in which your main character has no idea what is happening to him and why he is being tortured, then a climax where all is finally revealed.

This story also illustrates something said by Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the marvellous six-week Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop:

You're not just reporting events, you're shaping events.

So how do you shape a plot? Well, everyone knows the most basic plot shape of all: beginning, middle and end. However, even such a simple shape requires you to make conscious decisions about every step your characters' take. This is because in shaping a plot, you're making an essentially artificial structure. Nothing in life has a beginning, middle and end. Only stories do. Which is why we like them so much: they're a way of bringing order to the mystery and mania of life.

As for beginnings, the big question of course is 'Where?' Well, Kurt Vonnegut said you should start as close to the end as possible. The beginning and the ending of your story are the most powerful parts - like birth and death; so it's important to get them right. The beginning throws down a marker to the reader: this scene is vital; this time is the only time; this setting is part of the story; and this character is at the most critical juncture of her life.

The plot is the most meaningful segment - or arc - taken out of your main character's life. It's not an open-ended arc, nor is it a self-contained circle. This is very important, since the reader has to get a strong sense that the characters existed before the story starts and will exist after it.

Kate Wilhelm in her book Storyteller suggests telling stories to children because, she says:

Children are a demanding audience. They insist on an identifiable situation, a problem, a solution to the problem, and a satisfying, identifiable resolution . . . And you have to do it in such a way that your audience would not have thought of. Surprise them. If you can hold their attention, you can plot.

Incidentally, the sub-title of this book is, Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop. Kate Wilhelm was married to Damon Knight whose book I recommended last week, and I recommend this one too.

Ursula Le Guin in her book about writing, Steering the Craft, says:

I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax . . . plot is a pleasure in itself . . . it provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

However, she also warns:

But most serious modern fictions can't be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

I recommend reading Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was published in 1949 and is a distillation Campbell makes of the hero's journey as it appears in world mythology. The great thing about this book is its mixture of enthusiasm and erudition. You'll find yourself absorbing its wisdom about plot without really being conscious of it. George Lucas based the original Star Wars films on Campbell's hero's journey. In fact, there is an excellent DVD you can find in which Campbell discusses his work, filmed at George Lucas' ranch. Of course, there is just the smidgeon of a chance that Lucas did not base the new Star Wars trilogy on Campbell's work.

You might also want to try The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which is fascinating although a little heavy-going in places.

Also, I'd recommend looking at a book I mentioned in the first part of this article, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. In it, Snyder gives his own definition of the 10 types of movie plot and the titles alone are very evocative, for example, 'Monster in the House', Dude with a Problem', 'Buddylove', 'Out of the Bottle'.

Okay, I hear you thinking, but where do I start with plot? All this stuff is interesting but I want the bare bones plot shape to help me write stories that go somewhere interesting. After starting somewhere interesting, of course.

Well, you can't go wrong with the Seven Point Plot shape. This appears to have first been put together by Scott Meredith, who was a top literary agent. It was later modified by Algis Budrys, a terrific science fiction writer and teacher who unfortunately died earlier this year. There are of course many other versions of a basic plot, and there are plenty of people who think this one is too simple. But the truth is that the vast majority of successful stories fit into it.

I learned about it in detail at a workshop in Oregon, USA, a few weeks ago, taken by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I hope to say more about this workshop in a later article but it was a fantastic experience, far more than I expected. Dean and Kris teach with natural authority, in that everything they propose about being a professional author has resulted from their own direct experiences. They've each published dozens and dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. Their workshop is incredibly hard work but very, very rewarding.

So, the first three elements of the seven point plot are together what should constitute the Beginning of your story. If it's a short story, you really need to establish these three in the first paragraph or two; in a novel, maybe the first chapter.

1. Character - in a
2. Setting - with a
3. Problem

Character . . . Setting . . . Problem

The main character is the one we need to care about. We need to know where he is, the setting. And this should not be arbitrary; it should be relevant to the story, as well as being interesting in itself. Beware of the white room, i.e. characters existing nowhere because you haven't bothered to describe their setting. And also beware of assuming the reader will 'get' your setting, for example, 'Intergalactic Commander Buggins strode on to the bridge' may be enough for a Trekkie but the rest of us will be wondering whether or not to picture something over a river.

The middle of the story is the where main character:

4. Tries
5. Fails

He or she must make an intelligent try - one the reader is impressed with, would have thought of himself if he'd had enough time to. And the failure should be unexpected, both by the character and the reader. It's here the problem gets much worse, and the villain if you have one succeeds. This leads to the climax where the main character makes his:

6. Last try - this should arise from the depths of his despair, when all is lost and there's no way out. Finally,

7. Validation or resolution. This doesn't mean the hero has won necessarily, but the core conflict of the story is resolved.

One way of looking at plot is to see it as the distillation of a writer's natural tendency to turn life events into satisfying stories possessing the structure and validation that life unfortunately lacks. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend on the phone about when he'd spent 4 years in a religious cult, only discovering after he'd left that the leader had been sleeping with most of the women despite claiming chastity. My friend told me he only joined because he was in love with a beautiful Italian woman who'd just joined. Then - but I interrupted him at that point, saying, "Yes, this could make a great RomCom. He joins because he loves her but once inside, he takes it seriously, becomes a teacher even. But she sees through it all and leaves, so he's torn between his love for her and his new belief; then he finally leaves too, and tracks her down but at first she won't take him back, because she doesn't trust the fact he keeps changing his beliefs but in the end he finds a way to convince her and they get together."

"Hang on," said my friend, "it didn't happen like that at all. I didn't get her in the end."

"Well, you should have," I said, hoping he couldn't hear me scribbling notes.

* * *

Now, I realise I've been talking about 'rules' or techniques - which a lot of writers like to believe they don't need to learn. I know websites where writers regularly post self-indulgent stories that are impossible to read, in the belief that their natural greatness will get them noticed sooner or later.

Yes, it's true that the best writers produce work that seems very simple - stories that zoom along, full of characters you really care about, and written so smoothly you don't notice you're reading at all.

But that level of simplicity only comes after a writer has moved away from the original simplicity of basically knowing nothing about what he's doing, through the hard work and frustration of dealing with the complexity of writing well; finally, to arrive at a simplicity that can seem like magic.

Picasso was once on French television when very old. He was interviewed by a cocky young man who at one point handed Picasso a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to sketch something. Picasso obliged and handed it back. The young man said, "I could sell this for thousands, yet it only took you twenty seconds." Picasso said, "No, it didn't; it took eighty years."

So, that's it for plot for now. If you'd like to discuss any of this, or just tell me you have a better model for shaping stories, feel free to post a comment on my blog where I'll also put the outline script for this article, at

Thank you and good night.