On Finding (and not losing) the Plot
What is plot?
Ernest Hemmingway once offered the following as an example of a short story:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
How is that a story? What’s the plot? The plot centres around the element of doubt, or uncertainty, introduced by the words ‘never worn’. We start to ask questions: Why were the shoes never worn? Did the baby die? (How sad!) Did it just grow out of them? (How dull!) Was there never a baby in the first place? (How bizarre!)
E.M. Forster offers his own pithy definition of plot:
‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.
In other words, plot is not simply the sequence of events – that’s narrative, or story. Plot is what keeps a story going, what holds the characters and events together in a plausible and interesting way. Plot is not just what the characters do and say, but why they behave that way – who they are brings about what happens.
The importance of conflict:
‘Plot grows out of conflict. It is a series of actions that explore a character’s efforts to deal with conflict.’
The conflict, or ‘point of tension’, that drives a plot needn’t be a major crisis. The conflict might be a race against time and powers of darkness to destroy a magical ring, thus saving an entire realm from ruin and enslavement. Then again, the conflict might simply be struggling to fit in at a new school. Conflict can be a momentous struggle of good versus evil, or a heart-wrenching tale of unrequited love; or it can simply be the ordinary efforts of everyday people just trying to get on in life. But without conflict, without some difficulty your character needs to overcome, there will be not plot, and so no interest in your story.
Conflict, Plot and Structure:
At its simplest, plot takes the following form: Introduction – Complication – Resolution. Think of any fairytale:
Introduction: three pigs leave home to make lives for themselves, building houses of straw, sticks and bricks, respectively.
Complication: a Big Bad Wolf happens along, intent on breaking into their homes and eating them.
Resolution: the wolf is foiled, at last, by the house of bricks (and the foresight of its owner). Undeterred, he enters through the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water and justice is served.
A longer story might involve several such sequences – lots of little complications that are overcome, telling the story of a character’s personal development on a bigger level. A useful way of thinking about plot is to explore your characters in terms of Goal, Motivation and Conflict. This approach comes from a book by Debra Dixon Briefly, here’s how it works:
Goal, Motivation, Conflict
Dixon advises writers to consider
what it is a character wants to achieve – i.e. their main goal (both externally in terms of some tangible outcome, and
internally in terms of some emotional or psychological need).
Then consider why it is they want to achieve such a goal – i.e. what is their motivation (again this will be something external and something internal).
Lastly, consider what is preventing them from achieving their goal – what sources of conflict are they up against (again, externally and internally)?
Not only is this a great way to get to know your characters better, it may help you to see the direction your story needs to take. Check out the Goal, Motivation, Conflict example included in this section – you can use the template to work out what’s driving your own characters, and how your story is going to pan out…