Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Plot; An Overview

Hm. Where to start? There's so much I could say on just one aspect of plot. I could write an entire series of posts on several of the greater aspects! But I am going to attempt to pack it all into one post. It will probably be the longest post I have ever written.

So, where to start? Presumably, we should start at the beginning.


PLOT TYPE AND GENRE


Before writing, most of us sit down and think about what we are going to write. We think, at least a little, on what genre and plot type we might write in. So that is where I will start.

First of all--the plot type. There are three basic types, according to most writers (though these are often intermixed--indeed, they almost should be); Change of Character (called by the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum 'The Man Who Learned Better'), Romance, and the Heroic Quest. I am almost positively sure that most all of the writers who read this blog write in the Heroic Quest plot type. The title says it all--it's about a quest where the Protagonist has to overcome various obstacles in order to achieve his/her goal. My own novel is the Heroic Quest.

As for the other plot types; An example Change of Character (The Man Who Learned Better) would be A Christmas Carol. The Change of Character plot type is when the plot basically revolves around the change of character that happens to the Protagonist. Romance, of course, needs no explanation.

Now that we've covered plot types, we can go on to genre.

Almost everyone knows what genre their story takes place in. Fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, modern fiction, thriller, horror, nonfiction, etc., as well as the sub-genres within, are some common genres. My novel is fantasy, specifically Christian Epic Fantasy (fantasy that takes place outside this world).

Now I'm going to assume that you are writing either a fantasy or sci-fi novel. Or at least fiction. I must note here that all of my post now, though useful to just about anyone, is biased towards fantasy and sci-fi, specifically fantasy. To make things a little less confusing, I'm going to attempt to use my own novel as an example. Everything after this (genre and everything) will be said with my novel in mind. :)

So now we have our basic stuff set in place! My novel is Heroic Quest and Christian Epic Fantasy.


THE ELEMENTS OF PLOT


Now I can discuss the Elements of Plot; the things that drive a plot. The thing that makes them 'go round', so to speak.

1)
Conflict

I don't know how many times I've said this, and how many more times I will say this, but conflict is essential to a good story. Every plot type and every genre has to have conflict. It's obvious in the Heroic Quest that you need conflict--after all, what's the worth of a quest if you don't even have to try to achieve it?--but there needs to be conflict in other plot types as well. In Change of Character, the conflict is mostly internal. Will the Protagonist choose to change for the better or the worse? The 'better' and the 'worse' are what make up the conflict.

But how do you write conflict? Good, compelling conflict that sucks you into the story?

By the way, I don't have all the answers to that question. I'm just going to tell you what knowledge I have learned over the course of writing my novels.

Be warned; I'm about to jump into a sub-list within a list. But I must make one note before I do. I am assuming you know how to write conflict when making this list. If you don't, then you should probably go and read a lot more. :) Maybe you think about buying a writing book or OYAN. :D

1. Everyone knows about some kind of conflict. I've had conflict with my siblings on numerous occasions, to be sure. So, whatever knowledge you have--let it seep into the story. If you fence, then you know how to write a sword fight; if you have had a fight with a friend, then you know how to write a scene where the Protagonist fights with his/her friend. And so on.

2. Write conflict not only from external sources (coming from the Antagonist) but from within. A bitter fight erupts in a friendship. The Protagonist disagrees with a decision and takes a rash move to argue. Even conflict within the Protagonist's own heart--what decision should he make?

3. As for external sources, don't let your Protagonist win too often. Failure and disaster should be constant. That isn't to say that your Protagonist can't win every once and a while--but the price of the victory must be high.

Conflict should be constant. If you have a chapter that has a low amount of conflict, either cut it or ruthlessly edit it. You should never have a chapter without some degree of conflict, internal or external. Conflict is what brings the reader in closer for a look. It's like passing by a fist-fight--you can't help but stop to see what's going on.


2)
Characters

Characters drive a plot. That much is plain. The Antagonist, the Protagonist, the supporting cast of characters--friends, allies, enemies, and traitors, to name a few. I'm planning to do a character post later, so I'll save this for then.


3)
Suspense

This drives a plot, to a lesser extent than conflict. Suspense is what you get when you're about to go to the doctor's office to get a serious check done--and then you find out that it's delayed until tomorrow. The sense of foreboding and dread--meaning the anticipation of what's to come. You have a feeling of what's going to happen, but you don't know for sure.

So how do you create successful suspense? I'm by no means an expert on suspense, but here's a few tips that may help.

1. Give hints. OYAN gave such a good example of this that I can't help but use it as well. Think about the Mines of Moria. You knew that the Fellowship would eventually come to the Mines, simply because, when Gimli suggested they take that route, Gandalf replied, "No, Gimli, I would not take that road unless we had no other choice." See the pattern? Eventually, they don't have any other choices, so they pass through Moria. In a similar way, have one of your characters drop hints at what is to come, so when it does come, the reader will say, "Wow! I should have seen that coming."

2. Make the end result bigger and badder. When Gandalf said that he would not go to Moria unless he had no other choice, he told us, as readers, two things; one, that they would go there, and two, that something really bad is going to happen there. If you drop a hint, the hint must be an understatement of what is to come. The Fellowship finds that Gollum is following them, they discover Balin's tomb, and Orcs attack them. All of that is bad in itself, but then the Balrog enters the scene, and we say, "Whoa! Didn't see that coming." And then (Spoiler!) Gandalf falls from the Bridge of Khazad-dum. That makes Gandalf's ominous hint of what is to come seem like small potatoes compared to what REALLY happened. And that is your goal. If you succeed in doing that, when you make bigger and badder hints, your readers will wonder, "If something so bad as what happened before came from that other hint, this one must be really really bad."



Besides all of the things that I have just told you about what elements drive the story, there are other, smaller things that I don't have time (or energy) to go over. But there is just one more thing; all of the things that drive the plot--disaster, conflict, characters, and suspense--slowly but surely, with numerous setbacks, drive it toward the Protagonist's goal.


THE PLOT, BEGINNING AND END


Now we have the story type, genre, and the Elements of Plot, which all combine to make this; the actual Plot. A plot is usually contained into three sets; beginning, middle, and end. (duh). Usually, the middle is as long as the beginning and end put together.

But before I start my list, I ask one thing, if you are about to write a book; try making a synopsis. Write the basic elements of your story together, and then make a carefully worded overall synopsis that sounds like what you might read on the back flap of a book. This would be to hold your attention and keep you focused on the plot, for those of you who try to finish a novel but often quit. If you find you can't write a synopsis that satisfies you and sounds intriguing, then you may want to adjust the plot; if it doesn't interest you, it won't interest others.

1)
Beginning

The beginning is one of the most crucial parts of the plot. It does two major things if done correctly; it holds your reader's interest, and it holds yours. It sets the stage for the rest of the story. If you mess up here, you mess up the entire story--and if you mess up the story, it will end then and there.

I once wrote a 'prologue' (about three or four years ago) with a plot that was useless. The overall imaginativeness of it was like zip. But yet, to this day, it still intrigues me. I don't even know what in it intrigues me, but when I wrote that, I wrote something right. The writing itself was terrible (badly in need of editing), and the character in my characters was zip, but something about the way I wrote it still clung to its fragile, cracked shell. That's just one example on what should happen if you write a beginning; it should force you to keep writing, if only to find out for yourself what happens next.

But besides the initial stuff, like a prologue, what are some necessary elements for a beginning?

1. The wonder. You should try your best (especially if you're writing a fantasy novel) to capture the wonder of the world your Protagonist dwells in, whether it be Rome, England, Mars, or Middle Earth. But don't forget that everything has a 'dark side' to it, and everything will always have a dark side until Christ returns.

2. Set the stage. Most of the time, unless you are writing a prologue--in which case it is acceptable--you can't charge on to the stage without setting it up. What is the use of characters, plot, and suspense if your reader doesn't have an accurate view of your world?

3. Show what's at stake. By the time the beginning has ended (no pun intended!), you need to have established what's at stake, why your Protagonist is doing what s/he is doing, and what the goal of the story is.


2)
Middle

The middle, according to many people, (including me) is the hardest part of a story to write. It's not just the way to get to the beginning to the end, or a place for long and tedious travels; it's the best place to build characters, further establish the battle lines, draw the stakes ever higher, and prepare your Protagonist for the battle with the Antagonist (not necessarily literally, depending on your genre).

How are we supposed to do this? Well, let me tell you; I am definitely not experienced as I may seem in this part. Like before--I don't have all of the answers to this question. But I will try my best.

1. First and foremost; Don't give up and always keep writing. This can apply to plot or even novels in general, but the middle part of a novel is the easiest part to give up on. You may have read a book where the characters are in either a snowy land or a desert. Oftentimes what happens can be summed up in one sentence; keep going, or give up and die of thirst or cold. The same phrase applies to writers and their novels; keep writing, or your novel will die. Don't give up on it. If you feel like what you're writing is junk, then guess what; it probably is. But why should you care? My novel, when I first finished it, had very little silver in the diluted mess that it was. But over time I have polished it and polished it, as much as I am able. Just think; if I had given up during the time it took to write my novel (I came very close to it on several occasions), I wouldn't be in the position I am today. I most certainly wouldn't be writing this blog post today if I had given up. So basically; don't give up! and always keep writing.

2. Be inventive. If you think part of the middle is boring, then spice it up! Add a surprise attack, get someone sick, or have unexpected friendship be passed the Protagonist's way.

3. Looks like I'm going to have to say it again; add conflict. More conflict. Really.



3)
Ending

The ending, also, is an extremely important part of the plot. You should try and have the ending to be as meaningful and satisfying as possible. You want to fulfill the reader's expectations, namely, the Protagonist's goal of the story, but you have to do it in a way that the reader did not expect.

The ending is where the Protagonist finally experiences his/her hugest victory, but also their worst loss. Victory must come at a price, or else it will devalue the worth of the goal. The amount of suffering poured into the journey there will determine the value of the goal. In other words, (to bring economics into it!) "The item is worth whatever the buyer is willing to pay for it." The greater the price, the greater the worth. The greatest victory comes at a great cost.

There are several main things you should keep in mind when making an ending, however;

1. Make a showdown! The clash between the Antagonist (assuming you have an actual clash) and the Protagonist happens in the end. It's the most climactic moment in the story--or it should be. Most of the time, the Protagonist wins the fight with a high price. The only exception to that is in a series; the Protagonist almost always loses that battle.

2. Do you want to fulfill the goal of the story? Presumably you do. If so, then fulfill the story goal; but fulfill it in a way the reader did not expect. The ending of LOTR is a great example. (NOTE; If you haven't read LOTR or seen the movies, you should skip this next part) Frodo is finally in the Cracks of Doom. He's in Orodruin, the Ring dangling over the edge. All he has to do is drop it into the Fire, and the story goal will be fulfilled. But he turns and claims the Ring for his own, so close to the story goal. You can imagine the shock we get through this. "No!" we yell, "Just drop it in!" Not only does this fulfill the story goal in an unexpected way (or at least it will in a moment), but we can't help but think, that after all of the suffering and disaster that the Fellowship had faced on the way, the goal must be fulfilled. And then Gollum comes into the scene. He fights Frodo for the Ring and bites his finger off. And then, as Gollum claims the Ring, he falls into the Fire; fulfilling the story goal in an unexpected way.

3. The fulfillment of the story goal may need to have a lasting price to make it all the more worthwhile. In LOTR, Frodo can no longer go back to his own life; the Ring and the Ringwraiths have wounded him for life, and the power of the Three Rings fade, making most Elves sail over the Sea into the West, along with Frodo. The lasting price can help make the ending more meaningful and sad.


So there it is! I think I have covered many of the subjects that I wanted to. If you want to note something I missed, feel free and comment! I'm writing this late, so I may have to do another Plot post tomorrow or the day after.

Oh! And one more thing; try not to put resurrections in your novels. I just read a certain resurrection in the fourth book of BOTB and I wasn't impressed. I liked how the author made that particular character die; it seemed good and final, a sacrifice. But L. B. Graham kind of ruined that part. Otherwise, I am loving the series. :)

With that final note, I am off at last. I should bother you again tomorrow or the day after with either a character post or another (though notably shorter) Plot post. :)

6 comments:

Squeaks said...

Jake, you've blown off my cap again! This is an amazing compilation of facts not only from hearsay, but also from your own experience. I'm greatly impressed, also, by your style of presenting this information. Thanks so much for writing about the plot! I am greatly encouraged :) I suppose I'd better get working on "Children of the Song" now :P

Squeaks.

Eldra said...

Excellent post, as always, Jake! Plot is exactly what I'm struggling with right now and I kinda needed a kick in the pants (so to speak) to put a spark in my mind. This just might do it.

(SPOILER WARNING FOR BOTB) I'm assuming you're talking about Valzaan. I already knew before I picked SotD up that Valzaan was going to reappear; due to a number of things. It's been several months since I read it so my memory isn't too clear on it, but I don't remember being super annoyed or anything. Have you read All My Holy Mountain yet?

Galadriel said...

My WiP has a different sort of climax, due to the fact that it's the sub-sub genre (or maybe I'm creating a new genre) of eschatological fantasy. Basically, it has a lot of "the end of all things" in it. Like Left Behind, but in another world.

Jake said...

@Squeaks
I'm glad it was of help!

@Eldra
My annoyance is settled by the later events of the book. :) The only problem is that my library didn't have any of the books--I had to Interlibrary Loan them. And since I have yet to order All My Holy Mountain (I am REALLY anxious to), it may take quite a while. :P But I'm glad my post gave you a 'kick'. XD

@Galadriel
I believe there are a few Christian Fantasy books I know that have that kind of story plot to some extent, BOTB being one, and Christopher Hopper's books as another. But it is definitely a unique section. :)

Galadriel said...

Well, BotB is kind of that, but mine doesn't have battles--just massacures.

Eldra said...

Galadriel - Ooooh. That's nasty.