I’ve heard some writers will say, “I’m so bad at plotting.” This baffles me, and I’m not sure that it’s true–not when those writers are selling books (good books). So maybe it’s more that they plot by instinct, or just aren’t aware of their own process. (Or don’t want to be aware–that awareness can bring its own issues of freezing and change to the process.) Because saying ‘I can’t plot a story’ is a lot like saying, ‘I can’t tell a story’ — and if that’s the case, that work is not going to sell.
So it got me thinking and looking up definitions.
Elements of Fiction’s definition is a strong, clear one: “Plot refers to the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect… these events arise out of conflict experienced by the main character. The conflict may come from something external…or it may stem from an internal issue. As the character makes choices and tries to resolve the problem, the story’s action is shaped and plot is generated.”
Elements goes on to talk about rising action, complications, climax, as in:
“conflict: The basic tension, predicament, or challenge that propels a story’s plot.
“complications: Plot events that plunge the protagonist further into conflict rising action: The part of a plot in which the drama intensifies, rising toward the climax.
“climax: The plot’s most dramatic and revealing moment, usually the (main) turning point of the story falling action: The part of the plot after the climax, when the drama subsides and the conflict is resolved.”
In other words, that’s the basics of story telling. So now I’m wondering if it’s just that we don’t really teach story telling. And is this an issue for folks who may lack story telling instincts, but who still have the desire to write?
Aristotle’s elements used to be around in school, with the whole plot (or mythos) as the source and soul of what he defined as “tragedy” and what we call drama. He then put in as priorities, in this order, character (ethe), thought (dianonia) or ideas behind or within the story, and language (lexis–and, no, that’s not the car). Then there’s music and stagecraft, since he was talking about plays.
There’s more from Ari about how the plot has to be part of the entire story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Good plots should “neither begin nor end haphazardly.” You know it’s a good plot if you cannot take anything out without causing major problems.
All of this seems so basic as to not even need to be covered, but I wonder if that’s the problem. If basics are not taught, then stories will have fundamental, basic mistakes, and this–more even than poor writing–is at the heart of most stories that are rejected. At least, it’s the biggest issue in the writing I’ve seen of late, where the writing is good, but the story telling–the plot–is so weak that it couldn’t hold up a tissue.
Or maybe it’s due to so many folks wanting to be writers, but not being good readers? And by ‘good’ I mean someone who reads with an eye towards story and plot and character (and taking apart another writer’s craft to see how they pulled off their magic).
But books can get by with implausibe or even dumb plots if the characters are really, really great. And I do think a lot of writers let the characters do the plotting, since as noted above, plot comes out of presenting characters with choices (perferably tough ones), and the choices those characters make. But too many novice writers seem to make the mistake of forcing a choice onto a character to get the plot they want–and that never works.
Or compelling action can trick a reader into not noticing until later any whopping plot holes–lord knows, movies do that all the time these days with the distraction of cool, and even cooler, special effects.
But I still think any writer is betting off knowing when you’re making basic mistakes–meaning knowing about plot, and being aware of the process of creating a plot. Awareness can change a process, but that means it can also make it better. On the other hand, if your writing process works, no matter what it is, why tinker with success? It’s the stuff that’s not working that needs to be fixed.