Tuesday, July 28, 2009

PLOT: The Plan or Main Story (2nd in a series)

The plan or main story. That's how Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines plot. It is the force that drives the story. I cannot count the times that I have started out on a story with one intent in mind only to find that the plot is not strong enough to support a novel; yet is a good short story. One thing I find a lot in many published writers is that they take what would be a great short story and drag it out until it is novel length with multiple sub-plots and page upon page of unnecessary description. (Can anyone think of a character that Stephen King has described in detail? I can only think of one instance in which he did so. However, that's a topic for another time...) I have come to believe that as a direct result of the short story market drying up, many good short story plots have been expanded into plodding novels.

So, what is a plot? It is the things that characters do, think, or say that (and here's the key point) make a difference later. Let's take the simple daily act of taking a shower. Of itself, it usually does not make a great deal of difference in a given day (although co-workers may argue that the lack of one might); however, taking that shower in Robert Bloch's story Psycho has a major effect on all that follows. In fact, the scene is so crucial to the plot that readers (and viewers of the Hitchcock classic) overlook the fact that a great deal of money was stolen by the victim. So what makes one shower an integral part of the plot and the other merely an incident in the story? How the shower is weighed and presented in the story. It boils down to several key elements:

  1. What's At Stake? If you want the reader to care about your story, something must be at stake. Something of value must be on the line and in danger of being lost--the protagonist must have something to gain; but equally as important something to lose. A good example is Harry Potter. In each book the protagonists seek new knowledge that will help Harry over come another of Voldemort's evils and what's at stake? Harry's life of course.

  2. Making A Scene. How many times have you been warned "Don't make a scene..." My late wife would always forewarn me before we went to any social event (again, a topic for another blog). As a writer you want to make a scene. In fact you want to make a number of them. When creating a scene in fiction always remember that age-old axiom: SHOW; DON'T TELL. A scene is a single connected and sequential action, to include its embedded description and background materials. There is a simple test you should keep in mind when writing a scene: Does it move the story forward? I will never forget the first time I read a scene for a writer's group. I thought it was a powerhouse of a scene and it quickly became one of my darlings (by now I'm certain you can see where I'm going with this). I finished reading and sat back, waiting for the accolades I was sure were to follow. The first comment was, "It's a very good scene." My chest began to swell with pride. The critiquer (an editor by trade) said, "But it doesn't belong in this story--take it out." The loud noise that filled that room was my ego smashing against the floor. So, you might ask (then again you might not), how did you react? Like all great writers, I pouted for a day or so and then took out the scene and read the story. Taking out the scene had no impact on the story and was therefore not needed.

  3. ARE YOUR ANTAGONIST AND YOUR PROTAGONIST EVENLY MATCHED? Is the playing field even? If the reader feels that either the hero or the villain has no chance they will not invest their time in your story. That's not to say your protagonist shouldn't win; just don't make it too easy. In fact, make it hard as hell for he/she to overcome the obstacles. The bottom line is this, we all want the hero to win; nevertheless, conflict, struggle, dissatisfaction and aspiration are more interesting that a walk in the park.

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