Plot has always been the hardest writing concept for me to grasp. Every time I would try to nail down exactly what Plot is in explainable terms, which is something I’ve been doing for some time now, all kinds of unexpected things emerged: fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc.
This left me scratching my head. So I looked at what experts said about plot, and they came up with pretty much the same thing: Plot doesn’t appear as an entity unto itself. It appears as a manifestation of all these other aspects of writing. The ones listed above.
The only thing that seems to belong to Plot alone is the overall shape and structure of a story. The best way I’ve seen to explain this is to do it via the reader’s reaction.
Last year, I took a six-week workshop with Esther Hershenhorn, regional advisor for the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. She laid out a reader’s reaction in five simple, genius, steps:
This is the story’s beginning. The reader is curious about the story, the characters, the setting or situation, etc. Something has caused the reader to pick up the book and begin to read, because he is curious what kind of story this is.
2) “Oh my...”
This is at the transition from the beginning to the middle. By now, the reader is hooked, interested, and has been pulled into the story. If he’s in a bookstore or library, he’d probably tuck it under his arm so he can take it home to finish.
3) “Oh dear!”
This is the story’s middle. The reader has gotten this far because he wants to know what’s going to happen. He likes the characters, and he likes what’s happened so far. If he set the book down for whatever reason, he’d come back to it because he wants to.
4) “OH NO!”
This is the transition from middle to end. At this point, the reader needs to know how this is going to end. If the phone rang or someone knocked at the door, he’d get irritated because it’s pulling him out of the story. And, once that distraction is gone, he’d go right back to it. If he’s being seriously needy, he might simply ignore the phone or the door.
5) “Oh yes!”
This is the ending, or resolution to the story. Your reader is left with a sense of satisfaction. The characters are where they should be, and loose ends have been tied up. If your story has been really effective, the reader may feel inspired, illuminated, or even feel the need to take some action based on what he’s read. Or, he may simply feel the need to open it back up and start it all over again.
Say your story has this structure. Is it enough? Yes...and no. In order for this structure to be truly effective, you also have to have fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc. As with all parts of writing, having one good piece isn’t enough. They all must be good.
This is the overall picture of a story’s structure, but there are details within that play vital roles. Things like subplots, twists, subtleties, clues, etc. This post is already too long, so I’ll delve into these next week. In the mean time, happy plotting!