The Writer's Writing Guide: Plot

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Plot is why.

Story is and then what happened.

Story is a series of events in chronological order (This happened, and then this, and then that, etc.). Plot is a series of events deliberately arranged to reveal their dramatic, emotional, or thematic significance — that is, to reveal the reasons underlying and causing the story. As E.M. Forster says, "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.

Plot is a narrative of events which emphasizes causality.

What do we mean by "events?"

Events can be actual incidents which involve action. A dance at the prom followed by a proposition whispered near the refreshment table followed by an unplanned stop on a back road on the way home.

Events can also be internal developments. A childless woman spends the day at her friend's house, helping out with a six-year-old's birthday party. The only actual incidents are the actions of the party — the games, the presents, the food, the fights, the cleaning up. But, given the setup of the story, those are not the important events. The woman's internal process is. First, she's delighted, then she's stressed, then she's short-tempered, then she's exhausted, then she realizes she is relieved never to have had children.

Most good plots are a blend of external and internal events. Anne Frank's story is compelling because of the external events of the Nazi oppression of the Jews, and because of Anne's own development as a person while trapped by that oppression. The external events behave according to cause and effect, and the internal events do the same. In this case, the external events also help cause the internal ones. Internal events don't cause the biggest external ones — the war is not caused by Anne Frank's emotional development — but internal events do cause the smaller external ones, like the family fights, the romance with the boy, the strained routine in Anne's bedroom at night.

How important is character to plot?

Vital. Your characters determine your plot. The queen who died of grief in E.M. Forster's example could not have done so if she had been Cruella daVille — a character incapable of grief. Scarlett O'Hara wouldn't have had such a tumultuous marriage with Rhett Butler if she hadn't been so vain and feisty.

What do you need about character to drive a plot?

It is often said that the best plots result from a character's obsession. That is, a highly motivated need or ambition that sets into motion actions and revelations that return to affect the character.

The other thing you need about a character is change. This should be progressive — the character's compulsion gets progressively worse, or more complicated, or more stressful, or leads to increasingly messy situations. In other words, we need increasing tension as we move forward, so that at your climax, the character can make — or not make — a real and, by then, very important change. (Remember that the change can be external or internal.) As a result of this need for change, you should scrutinize all your scenes to make sure that none repeats what has gone before, and that each takes us deeper or more intensely into the issue at hand.

When should you think about plot?

I don't recommend that you think too hard about plot before you write. I recommend that you don't think about plot as an isolated element at all. Your characterization is much more important, because if your characters are developed, they will tell the plot to you. Characters wedged into preconceived plots are superficial and not believable. So work on characterization. Plot will take care of itself.
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