Monday, December 15, 2008

The Character of Plot

The last, but certainly not least, speaker I’m going to cover from this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference is editor Cheryl Klein, of Arthur Levine Books. She discussed plot, both from the aspect of the story and characters.

She said story is what happens. Plot is the structure which gives the action shape and meaning. In other words, story is a sequence of events, and plot is the larger change that happens through those events. This happens through both the external and internal plots.

External Plot: change in circumstances via action. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the outside. Entertainment comes from this aspect.
Internal Plot: change within the character. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the inside. Emotion and meaning come from this aspect.

Or, to simplify it even more...
External Plot: plot. As in, a major problem or situation is thrust upon the main character.
Internal Plot: character. As in, the character’s growth.

Ms. Klein really stressed how important the characters are to the story. She said you might have the best plot idea in the world, but without a sympathetic character to carry it off, she won’t be interested. Neither will most readers. Her fabulous advice is to start writing the book as if that plot didn’t exist, telling us only about the character to whom the plot will happen – after all, the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen, so why should we? This will show us more of the character and what he wants, which will ultimately add to the plot.

She went on to define different types of plot.
Conflict: One character vs. another character, or one character vs. herself
Mystery: a story where the characters need a piece of information
Lack: a story where a character needs something to be complete and live a full life

She said that good plots often have more than one of these types of plot going on at the same time. That you SHOULD have more than one plot in your book, since novel is a window into a real life and nobody has only one thing going on at a time.

As far as pacing goes, she said at least one plot event must happen per chapter. Or, your character must make at least one choice. The Lightening Thief is a good example.

On Frame Stories, where a story happens within another story, i.e. The Princess Bride. A change must happen in both stories, otherwise the one without the change isn’t necessary.

On a similar note, for multiple main characters, each must undergo his own change or internal plot. Otherwise that character isn’t necessary.

She said much, much more, but I’d be here forever if I relayed everything so I will stop here. Often, Ms. Klein puts notes from her talks on her website, This one isn’t up yet, but she’s got some other good notes on plot. This is one lady who loves to talk Plot, so I recommend checking them out if you haven’t already.


Anonymous said...

This is great! Thanks for posting.

Kelly Polark said...

Cheryl was an excellent speaker!

C.R. Evers said...

Great info! Thanks for sharing!


Unknown said...

This is excellent stuff. Man, I wish I could have gone there! It sounds like a very worthwhile and wonderful event. Klein is one of my dream editors that I wish I had...

Marcia said...

Plenty to grab onto here, Tabitha. Thanks! I really love the part about writing the character first.

Tabitha said...

Shana - you're welcome! :)

Kelly - wasn't she? She talked about so much that it took me this long to be able to absorb and decide which nuggets I wanted to post. :)

Christy - of course! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

Beth - she's amazing, isn't she? I talked to her during a break, and boy was that fun. She loves to talk about books and writing, that much was clear. A woman after my own heart. :)

Marcia - yeah, same here. It was interesting to see Internal and External plots as just Plot and Character. There are so many ways of looking at writing it almost makes the head spin. :)

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks for the post! I especially like the part about one plot event happening per chapter for pacing. This is great advice and a great way to stay on track!

Ann Bryson said...

Great summary, Tabitha! Cheryl was such a good speaker.

Ronald L. Smith said...

It was a very informative and eye-opening talk. I learned a lot. I'm now making sure I can answer all those issues in my novel.

Mary Witzl said...

Having read this, I suspect that my internal plots are the ones I really need to work on. And I may need to fiddle around with the one-plot-event-per-chapter rule -- I have a feeling I need to rev up the action. But I'm heartened to know that it is okay to have several plots going in one story --I'm definitely okay there!

Useful as ever, Tabitha. I come back to these and take notes!

Anne Spollen said...

I think the change within the character has to be sort of subtle - if you're writing for kids. They don't want lessons, and that's the big criticism I keep hearing from them over and over.

(Can you tell I just worked at the school's bookfair - I eavesdropped, too ; ) )

Michelle D. Argyle said...

What a great review! I will keep these things in mind as I write. You have a great blog here! I will definitely add you to my growing list . . .

--MA, or Lady Glamis

Tabitha said...

GWG - isn't it mind-boggling how everything in writing is related? Plot, tension, character, pacing, the list goes on.

PJ - yeah, I really liked that one too. I don't usually have problems with pacing, but it's really nice to have a more concrete rule of thumb. :)

Ann - thanks! This was a really hard post to write because she said SO much more. If we hadn't gotten her notes afterward, I'd have been lost. ;)

Prince B - it sure was informative. It's clear she loves to talk about this stuff, which makes her exactly in the field she should be in! :)

Mary - I also liked hearing about the multiple plots per story. Sometimes I get worried that I'm throwing too much at the reader...and maybe I am, but this still makes me feel better. :)

Anne - SO true. How funny you say this, because next week's post is going to be all about character growth, what's believable and what isn't. :) And that's awesome that you're able to eavesdrop like that! Golden info...

Lady Glamis - glad you enjoyed it! And so glad you stopped by!! :)

Keri Mikulski said...

Great stuff. Thanks for sharing. :)

Tabitha said...

Of course! Glad you enjoyed it! :)