Plot For Creative Fiction Writing Help
A Short Lecture on Plot
Think about one of your favorite stories. How would you describe the plot? In talking about Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol, for instance, I would describe the progression from Marley's ghost's visit to three more visits by spirits as each bringing Scrooge's attention to more and more dire situations caused by his stinginess and uncaring. Ultimately, even Scrooge joins us in feeling the necessity of redeeming himself for fear that no one will care about his death, and that he will be remembered only for unpleasantness and lack of humanity.
What I am remembering and summarizing is both plot and arc of story: In the plot, Scrooge leaves his office alone and full of dislike for the holiday everyone else is enjoying, is visited by ghosts and spirits, learns life lessons, and awakens a new man. As reader, the arc of story takes me on a journey from feeling horrified at his indifference to others to feeling warmed by his reawakened feelings of connection and service to others. I believe once again in the goodness of human beings and the way we matter to one another. The story sticks with its audience because of Scrooge's harshness when he leaves work on Christmas Eve, the eerie visitations of the spirits, and the party at the end when he goes to his nephew's home with gifts and food.
Stories that stay with us have events that escalate in importance and give characters opportunities to act and react, reveal their weaknesses and strengths, and make turnarounds in their outlooks and behavior. But for decades, the term "plot driven" has been used to mean a story that is less than literary, while "character driven" has been used to mean a story is esteemed. The literati often claim that authors should not outline stories, but follow their characters' needs and desires. But, as much as readers don't want to experience characters as manipulated by the writer, writers can't really ignore plot and story arc in favor of totally character driven stories. We must try to figure out where we are going with something and then stay open to receiving surprises along the way, even if it means we must rethink our characters' situations. Your narrative line has already had you take steps in that direction.
J. Madison Davis writes in Novelists' Essential Guide to Creating Plot:
Without a well-built plot, the story is going to sag, lean and fall to the ground. Any fiction that works has a plot, no matter how small or how simple; it's what holds the story up and allows the reader to attach meaning to the events, feelings and thinking in which the characters are involved.
To create plots that work (that allow readers to experience traits we enjoy in a story—criminal to redeemed, hopeless to hopeful, and cowardly to courageous, for instance) writers use story structure first articulated by Aristotle: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Here's how it works in A Christmas Carol:
Many of us have learned Aristotelian story structure informally—we've read lots of fiction in various genres and watched lots of films. Sitting down to study the story structure of the fiction and films we like, we might find it easy to identify Aristotle's elements. However, when we write our own stories, we may find it very difficult to imitate the story structure we so admire. We may not provide our characters with enough obstacles to allow them to grow as people or we might not chose obstacles that cause believable conflict.
But as Anne Perry puts it in her introduction to Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, "Conflict is essential to story. If there is nothing to fight against, nothing to win, nothing to lose…why bother reading it? In the end, who cares? You don't; you have a better book to read or write or both."
Conflict and trouble, peril and obstacles are at the crux of good storytelling. If you make life easy on the characters, readers will not stay tuned. Readers want to find out how people deal with trouble, whether what they've done leads to a happy ending, a mixed ending, or a tragic ending. So, whether you are writing fiction or from life events, think of the worst possible outcomes of events for your character and put those in the story. If your character is in love with a woman who doesn't love him back, rather than merely having her give him the cold shoulder in the lunchroom, let their boss give them a joint assignment. How does he work with her when she is distant and disdainful? If your character lives with this mother and can't develop further in his adult life because of that, have her die and leave him the house. How does he cope?
Another powerful blueprint for a story structure is referred to as the hero's journey. In The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler sets out to explain the blueprint to prospective storytellers by using Joseph Campbell's famous teachings on myths in his work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler asserts that Campbell, in recognizing that myths are practical models for understanding how to live, had "broken the code of story."
Vogler explains the story code this way: A character leaves the ordinary world for a special world. He or she receives, and at first refuses, a call to adventure. A meeting with a mentor occurs, and the character crosses the first threshold into danger, where there are tests, allies, and enemies. As the character journeys further, he or she arrives at the "Inmost Cave," and after crossing a second threshold, survives an ordeal, and receives a reward. Then the character takes the road back, experiences resurrection, and returns to the ordinary world with a prize.
If you want to map out this paradigm, rent a movie like Star Wars, The Matrix, or Avatar. Plot out the protagonist's path according to mythic structure. In Avatar, a paraplegic ex-marine arrives at the U.S. space station to fulfill his recently deceased brother's role in a special world where he is able to take on the body of an alien being and live in an alien environment. Diagram the journey the protagonist is taking, noting the ordinary and special worlds, the mentors, the allies and enemies, and the moment when the character becomes committed to a new goal.
Thinking about the hero's journey, or even just parts of it, will help you deepen the stories you are going to tell. Your hero doesn't have to be a mythic hero, because mythic structure turns everyday folks into the kind of characters readers want to track. Your story also doesn't have to take on a whole myth. It can take on a slice of it, but knowing the mythic structure will help you understand what part of the story you are writing, especially for short or flash fiction.
So how do we get protagonists from the beginning to the end of a story and how do we motivate changes in their character and show they have changed or at least will have to change? As Aristotle taught, we do this by thinking of events as "causal"—something happens that sets off a chain of events—and by designing the intensity of events to increase until the story's climax. Events and interactions keep the character in trouble and give the character opportunities to at first act in their usual ways and later in more decisive ways.
Structure is a basic tool that the writer uses to tell a story the reader wants to read. It is the framing for the story; it makes the story a house we can enter.
When I asked Nancy Lamb, author of The Art and Craft of Story Telling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, for her wisdom on plot, she sent these tenets based on Aristotle's ideas. If you follow them your story will come out well:
- Choose one idea, a few characters, and a few incidents—Don't overburden your story with too many plot lines, obstacles and distractions.
- Create defining conflict—At the beginning, make certain the reader understands what the central conflict of the narrative is.
- Use plot to translate character into action—When the hero confronts an obstacle, the action that follows is a result of the hero's response to the obstacle. Reaction follows action. Action follows reaction.
- Remember that choice creates conflict—Without choice, there is no conflict. In literature, as in life, the torment of deciding between two equally weighted alternatives creates one of the most powerful conflicts a character can confront.
- Use obstacles to pull story from beginning to end—Moving from one obstacle to the next creates steady forward momentum and helps maintain a strong story line.
- Write with a consciousness of pacing and tension—Increase the action ante with each succeeding scene. The initial obstacle the hero overcomes must be smaller than the one that follows.
- Create suspense by creating limits
- Remember that action springs from character—The hero's character dictates the response to the action. Action does not dictate character.
- Dramatize the resolution—Make certain to play out your ending in full and on stage. Anything less cheats the reader.
- Make certain the hero is the instrument of his own salvation—Throughout the story, keep in mind that no matter how helpless or hapless the hero is at the beginning of the book, he must ultimately save himself. Otherwise, it's not a complete and satisfying story.
Limit Time—If the hero must accomplish his goal by a certain time, day, or date, the motivation for continuing to read is automatically built into the story.
Limit Revelations—Parcel out pieces of the plot puzzle one item at a time. Nothing should be solved all at once.
Whether you are crafting an autobiographical story, one entirely from your imagination, or something of a mix, try your hand at growing a plot that utilizes this structure. As you write, create bounty, but remember, Lamb reminds us, "practice tough love—just because you write a scene doesn't mean you have to include it in the book."
Take the work you've created thus far from these exercises or take an older story you've written and not finished. Create a sequence of events that move the protagonist from the start (the inciting moment that causes him or her to enter the suddenly altered world) to the finish (she or he has learned something and/or received a treasure).
Here are questions to ask as you imagine these events:
- Where is my character as the story opens?
- What is the inciting incident that spins his or her life in a new direction?
- How will my character face this conflict? What does he or she develop as a goal and what results from having that goal?
- What happens as a consequence of his or her actions?
- What does he or she do now and what further problems does the new action cause?
- What event and consequences happen next that are of greater intensity or have graver implications?
- What is the event in the sequence that is the event of no return (meaning the character has two choices and both are risky)?
- How does the character fare? For instance, a true love says yes or no, efforts to be free of a family's entanglements succeed or don't succeed, or a jail sentence is served or commuted.
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