e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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About Books: Plot I

I seem to be stuck with this in my head, and the only way to get it out is to write it, so the saga continues.

Except it's not a saga. It's a series of essays.  Which brings up (as intended) the topic of Plot as an element of Story.  What is Plot, when is something not Plot, and why am I so firm about it?   To answer the last first, I'm firm about Plot because it's so often misunderstood.   Plot is one kind of narrative, but all narrative is not Plot.  These terms are used interchangeably by some, and that's unfortunate because we need the distinction if we're going to write Story.

What is narrative?  The relating of a sequence of events connected in some way (however tenuous.)  In its simplest form (before it even gets to a sequence), it's Who  Did What.   John planted a tree.  It grows by adding things in sequence.  John got up and had breakfast and went outside and planted a tree.   Narrative can be nonfiction or fiction: "What I Did on My Vacation", a police report of an arrest or investigation, an account of a battle or a treaty negotiation whether real or imaginary.  Somewhere between reporting events (real or fictional) and Plot are short things that some people call stories: anecdotes, jokes, allegories.  If straight reporting narrative is "what I did today", then anecdote is "you'll never guess what happened on the way to the office"--the report of an event or incongruity that sticks out, a bit of unexpected stuff.  With a little shaping, some anecdotes have story potential  (more on that later.)  But anecdotes don't have some of the essentials of Plot.  Nor do jokes.  Nor--though this is argued by some--allegories.  Allegories and parables are ways of setting up fictional situations that teach a lesson (the fox and the grapes, the dog in the manger, the blind leading the blind.)   Plot as used in Story is more than narrative, more than narrative moving toward a point...Plot is a specific organization of events to produce not a moral lesson but an emotional reaction.

So: back  to Aristotle and the skeleton plot.   The whole notion of the skeleton plot frightens some people and annoys others.  They hear "skeleton" and think "stock/simple/obvious/predictable."   Think a bit.  Every vertebrate on this planet has a skeleton, and all skeletons have a backbone, with a wad of neural tissue (large or small) at one end.   Does this mean all vertebrates look and act the same?   No.  From smallest to the largest, vertebrates exhibit dazzling variety: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals...and within each group, more variety...large, small, herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, various methods of reproduction, various social groupings and behavior.  The fact that I have a backbone and a scorpionfish has a backbone and a hummingbird has a backbone and a poison-dart-frog has a backbone and a reticulated python has a backbone does not mean that if the only sample of vertebrates you had was me, you could easily predict the rest.  Or the kangaroo or the duck-billed platypus or the fruit bat--just to stay in mammals. 

What the skeleton plot backbone gives the writer is a link to the hardwiring of human neurology.  Other links exist (musical rhythms that bring forth dance, and characters that connect to our social neurology) but in terms of fiction, the Plot backbone is both essential  and efficient.   All humans with  reasonably normal neurology will develop to what's called "concrete operations", at which point they're aware of cause and effect and have a body of knowledge about common causes and effects, both physical and social.   They're also aware of "justice" (the right effect from a given cause) as defined in their culture, and they're aware that justice doesn't always happen (the wrong child is scolded when the broken pot is discovered.)  

Plot is all about cause and effect.   Here's your complex character, this seething mass of innate and acquired traits...and your character has a problem: a need, a desire, a demand for change.  It does not matter what the problem is, as long as it's big enough to get that character into motion and fits into the rest of the plot, and it can be an internal push for change, or a problem imposed from outside (a storm, a war, being fired, being hit by a car.)  That initial problem is one cause...your character's reaction (born of his/her nature) is the first effect.   That effect does not solve the problem, or it generates a new, larger problem.  The effect becomes another cause...which demands another action, which has another effect.  A cascade of cause/effect, action/consequence, sets off down the plot's slope like a growing avalanche.  The character is active, engaged in the struggle with the problem and its successors--revealing more and more of himself/herself in that struggle.  Like the vertebrae in a backbone, not all the actions/consequences are the same size and shape (not if you want an interesting story), and you-the-writer need to have an end in mind...the tail of even the largest snake doesn't go on forever.  In fact, you don't want a tail on your story--to switch metaphors, you want to follow the backbone down to the pelvis and have the story suddenly "birth" a conclusion that makes perfect sense in light of everything else--that feels right, that satisfies the itch for justice born in the child when he or she first grasp the concept of fair/ unfair.

Plot has a beginning (when the character meets the problem) and an end (when the character succeeds or fails by whatever value system is governing your story.)  In between it has terrain: mountains, hills, valleys, canyons, barren slopes, intricate caves, all of whatever size and difficulty that story needs.   The character's outward and inward progress is fast, slow, difficult, easy, successful, failing, from moment to moment, as the cause-effect avalanche works its way down the backbone  from skull to pelvis.  The outward and inward progression may not be in synch...in the most interesting stories, may not be, as a disconnect between the obvious outward success/failure and internal feelings about those events help reveal character.   If a character is imagined with sufficient complexity, a plot may have five, seven, even ten layers, each driven by a different layer of cause/effect in the character and the outside world.  But even the simplest plot in a child's book has a backbone and a beginning, a middle, and an end that makes sense.

Tags: writing

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