Monday, November 03, 2008

The Bare Bones

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:

1) “Oh.”
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!


Unknown said...

Oh, I love that five step thing you posted. That is just so perfect :)

Also: I think you and I have exactly the opposite problems! I love plot--I think plot is my strongest writing skill. Character development, on the other hand.... And ironically enough, I had the same (but opposite) info when I researched: once you have the plot, the character development will come :)

C.R. Evers said...

What a neat way to look at the structure of the story. Seems like it will be easy to remember too!

Thanks for posting it!


Marcia said...

I find plot the biggest challenge, too. I love these "oh" points!

Angela Ackerman said...

I've never heard of an Oh breakdown before--that's neat! Thanks for sharing!

Gottawrite Girl said...

Tabitha, you've emailed me about this before, and it was so helpful ~ and much appreciated!! Very simple and practical... Thanks again for sharing.

Ronald L. Smith said...

Tabitha, hopefully the Prairie Writers Conference will be of help. I just saw that you left a comment on Cheryl Klein's blog. I'll be there, too!

It will be my first writer conference thingy and I'm looking forward to it.

Hope to meet you.


PJ Hoover said...

This is so great, Tabitha! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it up! It's totally helpful.

Carrie Harris said...

I think this is one of the best descriptions of plot I've ever read. Funny and spot on at the same time! Thanks for sharing it.

Kelly Polark said...

Oh, my! I love that plot summary!

C.J. Raymer said...

Perfect! Thanks so much for posting this. Anything to help solidify the process in my mind helps, versus pages and pages of "help" notes along side of my current project. What's the point of something if you can't remember it? This was totally cool!


Tabitha said...

Beth - actually, plot is my strongest skill. But I had more trouble sitting down to put it in explainable terms than anything else I've written about. :) I think that's *because* it's my strongest writing skill...I don't think as much about it as I've thought about other aspects of writing. :)

Christy - I love how Esther broke this down! Very easy to remember, and it makes it easy to see if you're missing something. :)

Marcia and Angela - you and me both! I loved Esther's class, but this was the best thing I came away with. :)

GWG - this is more comprehensive than the blurb I emailed you. Hope you enjoyed it! :)

Prince B - I hope to meet you too! We should all wear blog-buddy pins or something so we can recognize each other. :)

PJ, Carrie, Kelly, and CJ - glad you enjoyed this! :) It's really genius in its simplicity, isn't it? It's the best thing I came away with from Esther's workshop. :)

If any of you actively use this structure, I hope you'll let us know how it worked out!

Bish Denham said...

I like this "Oh!" factor. For me plotting is illusive. It is my characters who lead me through that invisible landscape and ultimately help me find "IT."

Beth Kephart said...

I woke this morning with the desire to go back at a book I love, but a book that is weak on Oh, No.

This list of yours, well, I couldn't have read it on a more propitious day. Thank you.

Tabitha said...

Bish - my character is currently doing this for me. I gotta say, it's unsettling since I'm an obsessive planner. :) But it's an interesting and fun way to explore a story. :)

Beth - it's it great when the universe aligns itself so that you get the things you want? I love it when it does that. :)

Unknown said...

What a great, simple way to break down the parts of a story. Thanks for sharing!

Tabitha said...

Glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for stopping by! :)