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An Introduction to Plot

Randy Ingermanson states the essentials of fiction are plot, character, theme and building a credible story world. Although this series of posts will focus on plot, it is inseparable from character, and the two must be considered together (as you will see over the coming weeks). Ronald Tobias says:

Plot and character. They work together and are inseparable. To understand why a character makes one particular choice as opposed to another, there must be a logical connection (action/reaction). At times the character’s behaviour should surprise us, but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened.

What is Plot?

Plot is the journey taken by the protagonist, a journey in which he or she must face a series of problems to arrive at a resolution, and experience personal growth in the journey.

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind. Plots of the body are action plots. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond). Plots of the mind are character-driven plots where the focus is on the inner workings of human nature, such as romance or women’s fiction.

Plot is not the same as telling a story:

Before there was plot there was story. Story was the narration of evens in the sequence that they happened. Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction. Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: “Why does this happen?” (Tobias).

Conflict

The basis of fiction is conflict.

All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills (Sol Stein).

Ideally, conflict should be a combination of internal and external conflict that drives both the external plot and the internal character arc:

We expect events to affect the main character in such a way that they force a change in his personality. Your main character should be a different person at the end of the book than at the beginning (Tobias).

Conflict produces character growth in real life—and in fiction. Testing our characters is the only way they can change and grow, and believable character change makes compelling fiction. This is a biblical principle:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3-5)

A good plot has a combination of fast-paced scenes and slower-paced scenes. But there also need to be ups and downs in the plot. It can’t all be conflict, with the situation getting worse and worse for the protagonist, or the reader can start to find the book tiring (the opposite situation is a complete lack of conflict, which the reader is likely to find boring).

In order to be good to their readers, authors have to be willing to be pretty nasty to their characters. One of the first things any novelist learns is to raise the stakes. Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character, then make it worse (KM Weiland)

Equally, the reader needs to see some minor victories so they can believe the protagonist will triumph over the odds.

Structure

Novels need a structure to support the story . As a reader, I find it more enjoyable to read a novel with some editing errors but a solid plot and structure than an error-free manuscript with a plot that doesn’t engage me. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t necessarily notice the structure of the book, whether it exactly follows a standard three-act structure. What I notice is places where the plot begins to drag:

If a film or book seems to drag, it’s usually because it is off structurally (James Scott Bell).
Ronald Tobias describes the classic structure:
The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem that must be solved. The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character. Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. This want (or need) is called intent.

Once you’ve established the intent of your character(s), the story goes into the second phase, which Aristotle called the rising action. The character pursues her goal. The action clearly grows out of what happened in the beginning. Cause, now effect. But the protagonist runs into problems that keep her from successfully completing [her] intention … reversals. Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal.

The final stage is the end, the logical outcome of the events in the first two phases. Everything—who, what and where—is explained, and everything makes sense. (Tobias)

This is commonly referred to as the three-act structure, and will be the subject of a later post. Next week we will examine conflict in more detail using the GMC method.

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