November 3, 2010
Good plots absorb readers in the same manner that dreams do, making illusion real through the use of vivid details that connect believably in the mind. Making that imaginative leap is the joy of fiction for most readers, and that’s why the best stories merge plot with character and voice to elicit an emotional response.
A plot isn’t just a series of events, it’s a map of character development through conflict. Over the time of a story, each action or event has inevitable consequences for the character, causing choices, change, and—ideally—growth, although in some instances a tragic lack of growth in a character can be a poignant resolution. The main events in all scenes should lead directly to the main conflict, develop that conflict, or resolve that conflict. Beginning, middle, end.
We read to feel excitement, suspense, joy, fear, love, hate, anything and everything except boredom and apathy. So when plotting, immerse yourself in how the characters are thinking, feeling, responding at any given moment, because the direction of the plot action depends on the personalities of the story people making the judgment calls.
However, in using narration to develop emotional conflict, writers beware! Early drafts tend to have two common plot weaknesses that are all the narrator’s fault.
1. The Talking Head
A “talking head” narrator tells about what happened, either summarily or (even worse) at length, explaining what was important and why, often in the past perfect tense, the world of the helping verb “had.” (Jennifer hadn’t slept well that night.…)
We writers tend to love words of wisdom from our narrators, those one liners, those beautiful descriptions, but to keep the reader in the fictional dream, it’s important to show important events happening in their own time, letting the characters live it all on the page and letting the reader make the connections instead of the narrator. To feel like a dream, conflict should be unfolded in forward motion, acted out through dialogue, gesture, and sensory detail, and not relayed as a past-perfect flashback.
Story conflict best develops, climaxes, and resolves in a series of events composed of scene after scene. The concept of scene as used in theater provides excellent showing lessons to fiction writers since drama has to get its story across without a talking head narrator. Inhabit not just the minds but the bodies of your characters and always keep them moving the story forward like actors on the stage must do.
Each scene in a story should make some sort of an emotional impact that sustains the momentum of reader curiosity. As a sort of mini-plot in itself, an effective scene centers on a single incident that develops with rising and falling action. Some sort of resolution or payoff should occur within the scene, but at the same time, new information should be introduced, new questions planted to carry the reader to the next scene.
2. Too Much Scenery
On the other hand, while finding the right story to show, the narrator can easily get bogged down in unimportant scenes of action and dialogue. We don’t need to be there when the character gets up in the morning and has pancakes for breakfast on the day the conflict starts. Begin with an inciting incident, that is, an event that stirs up trouble. Raise the major dramatic question early on. And throughout, avoid showing the mundane. Sometimes a one-sentence transition is all you need to carry the reader between important scenes.
It can be difficult to cut hard-won pages representing hours of work, but that’s the process. View extra pages as experiments toward the discovery of a wonderful new invention. By showing more than you need to tell the story, you can afford to be selective and keep only the very best details.
Tips to Shape Up Your Plot
Visual aids can help you get your plot into shape.
- It can help a plot flow if you know each major conflict event you’re writing toward. Make a flow chart or story map of the things that happen to develop the conflicts and obstacles leading to the climax. Focus on the events that will be shown in a series of cause-and-effect relationships.
- Make a line drawing of the shape of your plot’s dramatic progression. It should resemble a mountain, staircase, or roller coaster. Notice the movement of all three is ever-higher, but they vary in the pacing. A mountain goes straight up without a break, steps level out briefly between leaps upward, and roller coasters loop back between thrills. If your plot drawing doesn’t move upward over time, shift scenes around so drama builds.
- Once you have a draft finished, physically cut the manuscript apart and physically place each scene side by side to see how much weight you’ve given it within the whole. Alternatively, you could plot the scenes on graph paper based on the length of each one.
Once you have your plot laid out before you in visual fashion, study your pacing carefully. How long are the important action scenes compared to the slower scenes in between? The more important the event, the more weight it deserves. Background, transitions, descriptions added for mood and the like deserve less weight. Look hard at any bit you wrote for another craft reason (to establish setting, say, or develop character), and revise it so that at the same time it’s part of a scenic event that advances the plot.
Cut the chaff, and keep the discards in your recycling file. You never know when they might be just the thing to drive another story.
This class is condensed from two of my columns in Once Upon a Time, “Driving Lessons: Putting Your Plot in Gear,” which was in the four-part series on driving forces in fiction (Spring 1998); and “Go Ahead, Make a Scene” (Spring 2001).
©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1998, 2001, 2010
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