July 16, 2010

Thickening the Plot

I write a monthly column for WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club. Today I'm busy working on my column for next month's issue, so in lieu of a regular post, here's my July Writecraft column.


The first novel I wrote is packed with events. Throughout the lengthy manuscript, my protagonist goes places, meets people, and encounters challenging situations. What's it about? Well, there's this guy, and after high school he stays at home while his friends go off to college, and then . . . some stuff happens. The story contains well-developed characters in realistic scenarios, but it wasn't until several years and novels later that I recognized it has no plot.

Plot isn't just a series of events. This is far from obvious. Even though I'd read countless novels before writing one of my own, I hadn't taken much notice of the way a sequence of linked episodes propels a story forward. I set out to capture an important year in a character's life (a reasonable topic for a novel), but I wrote it too much like reality, in which incidents occur mostly at random and with little connection or reason. That doesn’t make good fiction.

A plot is a structured progression of selected events that build to a resolution. Goal-oriented characters struggle against increasing complications until they succeed or fail, usually changing in the process. In retrospect, a tipoff to the plot trouble in my first novel is my uncertainty over when the story should end. My poor hero doesn't have any particular desires or avenues for change, the conflict doesn't intensify, and there's no conclusion to reach. Why would anyone keep reading if it's arbitrary what happens next?

A strong story arc compels readers to turn the pages. A book with a weak plot will be put down and never picked up again, even if the sentences are elegant and the descriptions full of rich detail. As a writer, you owe it to yourself and your work to study and understand the components of a plot. Plotting is as important for memoirists as it is for fiction writers--and it's trickier because real life rarely follows a natural arc. But whatever you write, you can learn to choose and order events to punch up the momentum of the story you're telling.

I first grasped the concept of plot when I read SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder. This guide is targeted to screenwriters, but most of the script advice is just as relevant to books. Snyder identifies 15 "beats," or sections, that he advocates putting into screenplays, and I've solved major plot problems by thinking about my novels in these terms. For example, plots hinge on a catalyst early in the story that alters the main character's situation and sets off the chain of events. "In the set-up you . . . have told us what the world is like and now in the catalyst moment you knock it all down. Boom!" Snyder says.

Watching movies is a great way to study plot. Since films are shorter than novels and necessarily have less complex plots, it can be easier to spot and analyze the story. Look for the scenes that make life harder and easier for the characters, and consider how they're arranged. Snyder writes, "I have found, in reviewing hundreds of movies, that a movie's midpoint is either an 'up' where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a 'down' when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse)."

Another book that clearly lays out essentials of a good plot (and also uses examples from movies for convenience) is GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT by Debra Dixon. One fantastic tool I gained from this book is a single sentence: "A character wants a goal because he is motivated, but he faces conflict." Replace the generic elements in the sentence with specifics from your novel to figure out whether you have the foundation of a compelling plot. Dixon applies the technique to The Wizard of Oz: "An unhappy teenager wants to get home to Kansas because her aunt is sick, but first she must fight a witch to win the aid of the wizard who has the power to send her home."

The art of plotting can be learned. I'm no master yet, but I'm now writing manuscripts that my critique partners say they can't stop reading. That plotless first novel is hidden away in the proverbial trunk, but maybe someday I'll pull it out again and discover what my main character really wants.

Those recommendations again:

SAVE THE CAT!: THE LAST BOOK ON SCREENWRITING YOU’LL EVER NEED by Blake Snyder. Snyder passed away in 2009, but blakesnyder.com is still maintained and offers downloadable beat sheets.

GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT: THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF GOOD FICTION by Debra Dixon, available through debradixon.com

Blog-exclusive fun fact: Everything I said about that first novel, THE WEATHER UP THERE, is basically true, but what I didn't mention is that I envisioned it as a story spanning two years, and I only got through the first year (two drafts of it, in fact). I'm quite sure the second year wasn't going to turn out any more plotful.

Good Stuff Out There:

Eclipse in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones. I love intelligent parody, and Movies in Fifteen Minutes is always brilliant and hilarious. I am also about as obsessed with following the Twilight Saga as is possible without actually reading or seeing any of the installments, so I'd been waiting for this.

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