Writing Tips - Don't Lose the Plot
To plot or not to plot
We dream in story, live in story, love in story and die in story. This is the human prerogative. Ever since we evolved the language of communication, humanity has been sharing stories with each other. The stories and their itinerant plots have existed since time began.
I love a good plot. Who doesn't. I love a writer who has taken the time to tease out a plot line, add all the trimmings and let it unravel like the layers of an onion.
A plot less story to me, is wandering without purpose. It is good to travel with a goal or a quest - to have the destination and the route mapped out. I do like an entertaining journey, full of natural wonders, beauty, mystery and drama. While meandering looking at the scenery works for a while, after a bit it does get boring and the very scenery that is awesome soon begins to irritate.
There are those who take pleasure in their exquisite writing skills they feel they can have a plot free existence. Not for me.
We dream in story, live in story, love in story and die in story. This is the human prerogative. Ever since we evolved the language of communication, humanity has been sharing stories with each other.
The Plot Congeals
It has been said that there are only a few basic plot ideas in the world of literature and everything else is just a variation of these. The multitude of stories may have the same nub of a plot, but the characters, the scenario, the conflict, the outcomes, the tools and the timeline all make each story stand on its own.
While there are millions of stories out there, the plots may not be as varied as we think. It is in how we present the plot, what perspectives we offer, where we set the tale, how interesting we make the characters that makes the narrative new and interesting.
I will personally feel cheated when I read a story that is all fanciful writing, plenty of descriptive narrative, interesting characters but when I dig deeper and find no plot. I feel that all the time I have invested has been a bit of a three card trick. That is just me. I crave a plot, an idea or at least a nub of a narrative structure to prop up the story. Maybe you do too.
Trouble is the world of stories is so full of regurgitated mush; it is easy to see through the recycling process that goes on in most plots. It seems, looking at the success of Twilight, Harry Potter and countless science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror and mystery stories, that recycled plot is highly successful, and unpretentious- perhaps the public don’t mind however familiar a plot is, as long as there is one!
What's your plot, Sunshine?
It will help ( ahem! - self interest declared.) if you have read the previous two articles in this series as there is a flow to them but not to worry, each article also stands alone.
I know you're going to ask me, where am I going with this. Well let me summarise for you - give you an overview. Over the course of this article we will look at the following themes:
- What is a plot?
- Are their ancient/modern templates for plotting?
- How many variations are there have these been mapped out?
- How do I start plotting?
- Can I do a 'mash-up' or a 'remix'?
- Will this make me a better writer?
Ancient plot archetypes
We only have to have a look at mythology, legend and fairy tales to know that mankind have always craved for plots and have designed their mythology around plot structures. The folklore and ancient mythology from any of the ancient civilisations: Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Roman, Sumerian or Mayan have all got familiar plot structures.
The oldest plot-analysis we’ve got comes from Aristotle’s discourse on tragedies where he talks about a beginning, middle and an end. Only his works on analysis of tragedy have survived. Here he talks about the changes that a character undergoes or a decision he or she makes that results in a spiralling plot development and may well result in a tragic consequence.
He felt that a plotline should evoke emotions ( pathos) in the reader. Aristotle called the plot ‘mythos’ hence mythology is essentially a study of plots.
One of the oldest collection of stories from India dating back to the 3rd century BC is a compendium of intricately linked tales in Sanskrit called Panchatantra ( Five Principles) This is attributed to a Brahmin called Vishnu Sharma who narrates the e stories to two princes to further their education in ethics and morals. The Panchatantra has since spread all over the world through various Arabic, Greek and Western fables and is said to have influenced even Aesop’s fables.
Many anthropomorphic animal tales that have spread through many cultures have their origins in Panchatantra. The stories have broad themes or plots but also work as a tale within a tale within a tale like a Russian Matryoshka doll.
They are still very popular in India for children and adults in all media.
These closely interlinked stories are divided into five main story or plot lines most denoting morals or principles to be learnt by the young princes through story and narrative without direct instruction.
One of the oldest collection of stories from India dating back to the 3rd century BC is a compendium of intricately linked tales in Sanskrit called Panchatantra ( Five Principles)
The Five Principles
Although these are the five major plots each tale literally has hundreds of sub stories- each one forming a fable much like Aesop's. There are several similarities as the Panchatantra ( 3rd century BC) had traveled the ancient world and has been translated into Arabic (750 AD) , Greek (11th century) , Hebrew (1100Ad), Latin, Syrian (570 AD) and Persian (570 AD)
Mitra-bheda: The Separation of Friends ( A lion and a Bull befriend each other much to the chagrin of its two advisers that are jackals. One of them is hellbent of separating this friendship and ultimately this results in tragedy)
Mitra-lābha or Mitra-samprāpti: The Gaining of Friends ( a Crow and a Rat become friends despite their natural animosity.The rat frees the crow when it gets trapped in a net. This friendship carries on with other creatures like a Turtle and a Fawn in a cascade of good deeds- like pay it forward)
Kākolūkīyam: Of Crows and Owls (war and peace) : there is a raging war between a murder of crows and a family of owls. One of the crows 'defects' into the owl family pretending it has been made an outcast and then uses its inside knowledge to bring the owls down.
Labdhapraṇāśam: Loss Of Gains ( vanity loses ill gotten gains) : A Crocodile strikes up a mutually beneficial friendship with a Monkey. They become best friends and despite all warnings the monkey carries on in this dubious relationship. It transpires that the crocodile is actually is after the monkey's heart - not figuratively but literally as a delicacy for lady crocodile!. The deception is discovered and a denouement occurs. Gripping stuff!
Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ: Ill-Considered Action / Rash deeds ( hasty action- a Brahman leaves his child monetarily to be looked after by his pet mongoose. On returning he sees th e mongoose rush out to meet him with blood in its mouth and he fears the worst and kills the mongoose. Only later he realizes the Mongoose did its job, fought a snake and protected the child)
Modern Plot Structure
The first person to elaborate on a plot structure was Gustav Freytag (1816 -1895) a German dramatist and novelist. Freytag studied Greek and Shakespearean Drama and came up with a five part plot structure popularly known as Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag’s analysis include the initial Setting for the story that begins with the Exposition- here the characters are introduced, their normal routines and characteristics displayed, a protagonist and perhaps an antagonist are contemplated and eventually the inciting moment or the conflict is introduced.
The conflict indicates the rise in momentum and the rapid ascend called rising action. Here further conflict may be introduced, secondary characters and conflicts may arrive, the net may close tighter and problems may worsen for the protagonist or the mystery deepens. This inevitable progression tightens s the grip on the reader and spirals up until it culminates in the climax.
Freytag studied Greek and Shakespearean Drama and came up with a five part plot structure popularly known as Freytag’s Pyramid.
The climax is the third act of the plot. Here the conflict is taken as far as it can. In a tragedy this is as bad as it can get or in a comedy of errors this is as confusing as things can get to. The climax indicates the turning of the tide, the protagonist may gain an advantage and the conflict may begin to loosen its grip indicative of falling action.
In falling action, the conflict unravels the roles may be reversed and there is a gradual slide towards the inevitable denouement. The plot may still progress and more mysteries may be revealed.
In the resolution or denouement, there is a final moment of triumph. The killer is revealed or the fortunes reversed to the full and protagonist may win. The conflicts are resolved, the story concludes and there may be a moment of catharsis or relief.
This represents the Western approach to story and narrative. There are variations thereof and every storyteller attempts to find new ways of injecting innovation into this plot line .
In Japanese tradition of Jo-ha-kyū there is a three part narrative with a beginning, a break and a rapid. The climactic ends abruptly, without the decline of falling action. Here the climax and denouement may be the same not letting the pace slacken.
36 Plot Situations by Polti
Another analyst of plots from ancient to modern was an author called Carlo Gozzi whose work was compiled, completed and written in French by Georges Polti as 36 dramatic plot situations. His work is still popular and is used by storytellers worldwide as a resource for constructing plots.
Bizarrely enough, I just realised that the surname Polti is an anagram of ' I Plot' . Go figure!
It looks like Polti has studied mostly Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays and pretty much outlined their plots. There is a lot of similar sounding themes but I am sure his book will explain the differences in much more detail.
If you are bored you can play 'Spot the Plot' game with these. Tell me in your comments if you do spot plots.. there are so many familiar plots here.
If you are stuck for a plot idea.. go ahead just pick one!
Bizarrely enough, I just realised that the surname Polti is an anagram of ' I Plot' . Go figure!
The 36 Plot Situations by Polti
1. Supplication: a persecutor, supplicant and a power in authority - dountful decisions
2 Deliverance: an unfortunate, a threatener and a rescuer
3. Crime pursued by Vengeance: a Criminal and an avenger
4. Revenge between kin upon kin: A guilty kinsman; an avenging kinsman
5.Pursuit : a fugitive; a pursuer; a punishment
6.Disaster: a vanquished power; victorious enemy;
7.Prey to misfortune: A misfortune; a Master; a victim
8. Revolt: a Tyrant; a conspirator
9.Daring Enterprise: a bold leader; an adversary; an object
10: Enigma: a problem; an interrogator; a seeker.
11. Abduction: an abductor; an abductee; a guardian
12. Obtaining: an adversary, an arbitrator and
13. Enmity of Kin: a malevolent kinsman and a hated kinsman
14. Rivalry of Kin: mutual
15. Murderous adultery: two adulterers,, a betrayed spouse.
16. MAdness: a madman; a victim or victims
17: Fatal imprudence: an imprudent; a victim or a lost object
18. Involuntary crimes of love: a lover, a beloved, a revealer.
19.Slaying of kin unrecognized: a slayer an unrecognized victim
20.self-sacrifice for an ideal: a hero, a sacrifice, a creditor, an ideal
21.self-sacrifice for kin: a hero, a sacrifice, a creditor a kin
22. All for passion: a lover, a fatal passion, a person or object sacrificed
23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones: a necessity, a sacrifice, a beloved one and a heroa
24. Rivalry- superior vs inferios: an object of rivalry, a superior rival and a inferior one
25. adultery: two adulterers a deceived spouse
26. Crimes of Love: two lovers, a crime
27. Discovery of dishonour: a lover, a dishonoured one, the discovery
28. Obstacles to love : two lovers, an obstacle
29. An enemy loved: a lover, a beloved enemy, the hater
30. ambition: an ambitious one, a thing or position coveted, an adversary
31.Conflict with God: a mortal and an immortal
32. Mistaken Jealousy: a mistaken one, an object of jealousy, the author of the mistake, the guilty
33. Erroneous Judgement A victim of the mistake, the author of the msitake, the real guilty one,
24. Remorse: A culprit, a victim or a sin, an interrogator
35. Recovery of a lsot one: a seeker, a lost one
36.Loss of loved one: a kinsman slayed, a kinsman spectator, the executioner
Come Plot with Me....
Now that you know a bit of background and theory about plotting- why don’t you give it a try. I am sure you have got many ideas rattling around in your brain. It may be a Comedy or a Tragedy, a Quest or a ‘Rags to riches’ story. It may be a Journey there and back or a Rebirth . It may be Overcoming a monster- internal or external. ( Christopher Bookers seven basic plot ideas)
I have outlined how to go about applying all this theory and some practical tips in constructing a storyline for a novel. This is purely my version of events so handle with care!
If you are stuck for what emotions your characters need to go through to have a rich and varied dramatic effect- kindly consult the emotion wheel!
The said wheel is based on Jungian Psychology.
A MacGuffin ( or a Mcguffin, Maguffin) is a cinematic plot device that drives the story and sets the plot into motion. It is usually an object. Like the 'Maltese falcon' in The Maltese Falcon . Like the 'one ring' in Lord of the rings. A secret document. A scientific formula. A rare gem. Hitchcock said he coined this term from an old joke.
Two men are travelling on a train to the Scottish highlands. One asks the other, 'What is that large package on the luggage rack?'.
The owner of the package says "It's a MacGuffin".
"What's a Macguffin?" asks the puzzled passenger.
"It's used to trap lions in the Scottish highlands"
"There are no Lions in Scotland' says the intrigued passenger.
"then" says the passenger, "There's no MacGuffin"
an idiomatic expressing denoting a plot device or a literary tactic that is crafted to mislead the reader away from the suspect or item of significance. Agatha Christie was a master of the 'Red herrings'.
There are no real species of Red herring. An apocryphal story goes to say the herrings were used to train hounds to test their sense of smell. They will be following a main scent on the ground and the trainers may try to distract them with a strongly smelling smoked herring. The hound then needs to retrace the original scent without being distracted by the herring. There is not much truth to this story if you ask dog trainers!
' A man in the wilderness asked this of me
How many strawberries grow in the sea
I answered him, as I thought good
As many red herrings as swim in the wood'
- Mother Goose
A plot device wherein the main character(s) is confronted with a shocking revelation or an event or a precarious position, even a dilemma at the end of a chapter or an episode of a serial. This was designed to keep the reader hooked, waiting for the next instalment. Charles Dickens was good at this as he often serialized most of his works. Modern soap operas do this too.
This was the basis of 1001 Arabian Nights where Scheherazade who was facing an execution in the morning kept the Sultan on tenterhooks with her tales so he didn't behead her without knowing the outcome of her story. She kept him occupied thus for 1001 nights and in the end he forgave her for her narrative acumen!
The actual term may have originated from Thomas Hardy's serialized work ' A pair of blue eyes' where one of the characters , Henry Knight, was left literally hanging from a cliff at the end of a chapter. The Magazine called it a cliffhanger ending and others soon picked up this term.
This was a convenient plot device for ancient Greek playwrights to rescue a meandering story line. If they got stuck in a situation, say if a character has died but they wanted a happy ending, they just introduced a 'God' character to sort out the mere mortal problems by bringing the said protagonist to life.As the God character was always lowered from the heavens on a makeshift crane, it was called 'Deus-ex-machina'
This God -on-a-machine was loathed by some as it was a convenient way to get out a sticky plot situation. However audiences ( in those days,) loved it.
Nowadays, in fiction, you may tempted to bring in an external power that resolves all conflict with no motivation but to just help the lazy writer! It could be secret serum that brings people to life, a superhuman power, an Extra terrestrial , a God or you could always say it was all a dream!
Plotting : A Writing Primer
Follow these steps to a plotful life and a plethora of fortunes.
Pin that idea down
So let’s start. First you need to pin that plot idea down into two or three sentences. If you can’t you are in trouble. Your idea needs clarity. It needs to sound like one of those plot structures listed above – whatever the genre is you need to sum it up in a few sentences precisely. If you can't the idea is not mature yet. This is the synopsis, the nugget, the nucleus of your novel.
List the elements ( exposition, conflicts, escalation, climax, denouement, characters, setting)
Now you can go to town on the detail- what exactly is the setting what is the conflict – how many conflicts are there to escalate the plot and raise the tension? Who are the characters – how many main and sub characters are there? How do they drive the plot forward? Do they help or hinder the protagonist? How about plot devices: What are the Macguffins? Are there any Red herrings?
Organise the elements
This is the beginning of storyboarding. You have had a lot of ideas for scenes and characters. You need to be organised in how these come together. You need to be prudent and less possessive. A character who sounds good but doesn’t necessarily drive the plot forward will stick out like an unwanted accessory. Discard and move on. Or may be save that for another story! Plot devices also do come in handy here. Choose wisely.
Tease out the structure & characters
You start storyboarding the scenes- you can maybe write out all the scenes on index cards and arrange them on a corkboard. Now you can see whether it flows, whether the tension is maintained and whether each scene is self contained and enjoyable in its literary merit. Also monitor the grip on the reader- is it flagging? Is there too much re-exposition? Is there too much telling and not showing?
Throw in the details
Now you start writing. Live the scene. Close your eyes. What can you see happening. Built the scenario. Imagine you’re there. What can you smell. What background detail can you add. Can you visually conjure up the image and the backdrop for the reader. Expand the tension, flesh out the details. Give the characters traits and tics. Use mannerisms you have seen in real life to make them realistic and not like cardboard cut outs. Preferably use cliffhangers or twists to sustain the readers interest. Write - let the muses inspire you. Aim for at least a thousand words a day.
Innovate, Interest and Increase the stakes
Like a sculptor fine tuning, you start trimming, pruning, adding and refining your narrative. You make sure there is a fresh perspective, fresh plot elements, new twists to old ideas, elimination of clichés and a sense of fun and pace ( unless it s a tragedy of course) A story shouldn’t be one note. Even a tragedy needs moments of relief as reality not just a ruthless descent into melancholy. A comedy will also need tension. Sugar and spice. Sweet and sour. Like a master chef concocting a dish, like a painter wielding a palette - unleash your inner artist.
Navigate the story line
Now like a proud builder walking through their marvellous palace start reading over your work. Walk through each scene, each bit of dialogue, each plot twist and see if it all gels well. If you come across a misstep like a bad tile, a loose door, leaky tap or a creaky hinge- fix it. rewrite ,edit, rewrite. Walk again. Someone once said 90% of writing is in the editing.
Gather ye loose ends
Wrap it up. Finish the climax, tie up loose ends. Test the mood of the denouement. See if the plot works well. Ask a reliable person to read it if you feel to close to the material. Send it off. Test the waters. If unsure put it away for a while and then reread it. See how it feels. You've completed your first work of fiction. Rejoice. Crack open that champagne. Or maybe not, wait for the first cheque to arrive before splashing out on champagne. Have beer instead. Or some wine. Or soda pop. Drink anything -because you are likely to be dehydrated after all this activity!
Now how many of you have been paying attention? Did you notice that each step listed here is conveniently done using the letters in 'PLOTTING' to help you to remember. I devised this myself, as I spare no effort to aid your memory. A nice twist don't you think?
You at the back, stop yawning!
Now you don't have to follow a linear structure to your plotting. I love stories that play with the structure, that travel back and forth in time, throw in flashbacks, twist the POV ( within reason) and play with conventions of narrative.
However, I still expect a worthy story to justify all the gimmicks. All fancy footwork will be wasted if there is no solid plotting, an exposition, a conflict, a rising action, a climax, a falling action and a denouement. Some stories may choose to end abruptly in a climax and leave the 'happily ever after' unsaid. That is okay to me provided the reader is satisfied with the conclusion. It shouldn't leave an unfilled feeling in your gut.
The End is nigh...
So there you have it. Everything you wanted to know about plots and were afraid to ask. You need not be mystified anymore. Plotting is like any other skill - you imitate, refine, articulate, combine and naturalise.
Soon you are the master-plotter, the purveyor of pure plottiness. I can see your beaming smile from here as you concoct plot after plot with sheer abandon.
Well, all the very best in your endeavours, dear writer.