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The plot of a story is "what happens". Underlying all effective plots is a skeleton which connects the "who did what" of events with causation and character. Effective plots were defined by Aristotle over 2000 years ago--and that definition still works because people still respond emotionally to exactly the same twists and turns and resolutions in a plot.
The effective plot has an interesting character with an innate character flaw engaging a serious problem/conflict. The character struggles to solve the problem, but does not succeed at first because of his/her own character traits, motivations, limitations, etc. The plot resolves when the character finds a solution (eucatastrophe) or is defeated/dies (tragedy.) The resolution fits--it suits our innate concepts of justice--because the character's actions are consistent with his/her character, and the consequences are logical for those actions. Readers feel that the character "deserves" the ending--either comeuppance or success--because of the character's earlier attitudes and behaviors through the story.
Without conflict/problem, there is no plot. Without character, there is no plot. Without plot, there is no Story.
Some problems are plotworthy and some aren't. Novice writers tend to pick either trivial problems (which are easy to find solutions for, and make the protagonist look stupid when he/she doesn't solve them right away) or huge catastrophic problems (beyond the resources of any real individual to solve.) If your protagonist's big conflict is agonizing over which shade of lipstick to put on, or whether to have pecan-praline or rocky road ice cream,..who cares? Though a struggle to choose between lipsticks or ice cream flavors can be used to show character, the real conflict in the story needs to be bigger than that--it needs to have real consequences. On the other hand, catastrophic problems (preventing the end of civilization) are difficult enough that most fictional solutions aren't convincing, and require considerable expertise to make them so. At least in the first stages of writing, choose plot problems that are medium-large, where the consequences of failure will hurt, but the universe won't explode. Again, the subordinate plot complications need to be plot-worthy (not every difficulty the character faces will be) or the plot slows to a crawl.
The Skeleton Plot: Constants and Variables
Every plot must have the following constants: protagonist, conflict, complications, and resolution. These form the skeleton of a plot. Within these four plot constants writers can find many variables, allowing writers to construct multiple plots on the same skeleton, just as genetics gives us each a unique body supported by the same bony skeleton.
Person v. Nature (terrain, vegetation, animals, weather)
Character Defines Problem As:
Not a problem (denial): Character does not recognize problem and/or thinks something else is the real problem. This is the "train wreck" plot in which character's blindness leads to disaster. Typical of classic tragedies.
Character Places Responsibility for Problem:
External: Character blames fate, natural order of things, society, specific individuals
Character Attacks Problem By:
Attempting to change external factors
Problem Affects Character Dimension:
Intellectual Financial Emotional
Sorrow Anger Power Wealth
The simplest and least effective way to enrich a skeleton plot is with unattached detail--like putting clothes on a skeleton. You can heap enough clothes on a skeleton that it looks like a person...as long as it doesn't move. When it moves, the clothes slide off. No matter how gorgeous they are, no matter how rich the fabric, how ornate the decoration, how clever the design...sooner or later a wrist-bone or rib or bony foot will show through. This works, however, in very short stories where there's not enough room to put sinews, muscles, and skin on your skeleton plot before you put the clothes on top.
The deeply enriched plot adds those layers by giving the character more than one problem, in more than one dimension: problems defined differently by the character, who will have different motivations for acting in each situation. The skeletons of subordinate problems function as sinews and muscles moving the skeleton of the main plot...these are your subplots. They don't just sit there covering up bare bones: they must function. This kind of deeply enriched plot gives your protagonist the necessary space for thoughts and emotions to drive decisions and actions, and then more space for the character to react to the consequences of those actions. It connects deep motivations to surface actions, feelings to thoughts, causes to effects, actions to consequences, making the whole seem both surprising and inevitable.
The story will be surprising because the writer has built in enough variables to make it hard to predict--characters with multiple problems, multiple motivations, conflicted priorities, and thus multiple possible decisions at each branch point. And it's inevitable, at the end, because each choice, each act, limits the possibilities. The reader has a sense that it all hangs together, that the flow of causality feels real, that the character feels real (yes, he/she would have done that.)
The longer the story, the more room you have to add layering and complexity. Thus a novel-length story will support more plot complexity than a short story. Beyond one-volume length, a technical difficulty shows up--keeping the main problem dominant, so that even when you have multiple viewpoints, multiple important characters, and/or multiple subplots, the reader continues to feel the tension of the main plotline keeping the story going one direction, not multiple directions. It takes a very strong skeleton to hold up all the extra weight and make the main structure clear, and it's tempting for to explore interesting side-stories that are fun to write. To avoid losing the flow of the main plot, keep asking yourself "Is this plotworthy? How does it help move the main plot?" If you consider each subplot, and each scene, in relation to the main problem of the main plot, you can usually tell when something is trying to take over the main plot, or when you have a lot of flabby bits just hanging there in the way.
Contents of these pages ©1996-2012 Elizabeth Moon