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PLOT? WHAT PLOT?
By Tambra Nicole Kendall
This information is taken from one of my writing courses on plotting.
Plotting comes easy for some people, for others it can be a struggle. Some writers have said I can only write about characters, I can’t plot. I say, yes you can and you’re already doing it. A little further down you’ll understand why I say this.
I’ve heard over the years that the plot is the skeleton of the story, the backbone that holds everything else in place. In the beginning this helped a little bit but plot scared me. I didn’t really understand how it worked with characterization. Once it all clicked into place, I discovered I loved to plot.
You can have great protagonist and antagonist but if you don’t have a good plot how can they shine? Know Thy Character.
If you don’t know your characters intimately how can you write about any aspect of the life you’re creating for them?
What is plot anyway?
The best definition of plot I’ve found is from 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) by Ronald B. Tobias.
He defines plot this way. “Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction.”
But Tobias continues, “Plot is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behavior. Plot involves the reader in the game of “Why?”
When I first began writing, I clearly separated plot and characterization. Due to my lack of understanding, I had no idea how closely they work together until years later.
Plot and characterization are woven together in a tight weave. You can’t have one without the other.
No conflict = no characterization = no plot. You can’t have a plot without conflict.
What does plot do?
Plot gives unity and structure to a novel. Conflict unifies the narrative work. We want order and logic in our writing. A unified action creates a whole, made up of a beginning, middle and an end. These are also called the three movements of dramatic action.
When you ask yourself, “What does my character want?” You’ve begun the journey of plot.
The Beginning, the first phase of dramatic action is having a character want something leads to motivation. The want or need, is also called intent.
The Middle, the second phase: Once the intent of the character is established then you’ve entered this second phase of dramatic action. As your story progresses, the action must rise, the stakes must become higher as well. Your character is pursuing their goal with actions coming from their want/need/intent. The action grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. The events are tied together giving a coherent thread for the reader to follow.
The End is the last phase and contains the climax, falling action and the denouement. The ending must be logical from the sequence of events you’ve written in the beginning and middle. The ending action must be done by the protagonist. The protagonist should not be acted upon.
You see, everything in your writing is there for a specific purpose, cause that leads to effect, which bring you to another cause. Anything that happens in the world you’ve created must be there for a reason and the story forward. By leaving scenes in that don’t further the plot, the story becomes diluted and it suck out the intensity, the dramatic effect you are working so hard to achieve.
Plot and character are inseparable. Plot is the function of character, and character is the function of plot.
Characters come alive with action. Plot is a function of character, and character is a function of plot. You can’t have one without the other. What they share in common is the action you’ve created.
There is a logical connection (action/reaction) why a character makes one choice as opposed to another. But the character shouldn’t behave in a predictable manner, because it will be thrown into the realm of boring. Just because there is a logical connection between the cause and effect relationships doesn’t mean it has to be obvious. Also, when a character makes a choice there should be consequences whether it’s good or bad. Doesn’t this happen in real life as well? Of course it does.
We draw upon our experiences to create plot. This is why writers look for universal plot themes when they write. We all want/need love, acceptance, food, shelter. These are a few of the universal topics I’m talking about.
Another way to look at character and plot comes from the book “What If?” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:
How a character handles a situation by the way they choose to act, or not act in some cases, moves the story forward into plot. The particular situation your character is in grows from the beginning point where their life is shifted from normal. Then complications rise, each time escalating finally reaching the crisis point. Throughout this process, the character’s self-concept is revealed and threatened which will blend right into your plot.
I hope you can see how plot and character work together, play off of each other to bring the story alive on the pages you’ve written. I would love to hear you thoughts on plot!