Sometimes plots can grow organically, just moving from one scene to the next. But if you’d like to know about the problems of plotting, or would like to get a better handle on it, maybe this is the time to actually examine what a plot is and how to put one together.
Never underestimate federal asses. Urban legend has it that when a reporter wanted to find out how many people worked for the CIA, he called the Russian Embassy.
This was at the height of the cold war and the reporter was doing a story on the new CIA building in Langley, Virginia. When he asked the CIA how many people worked out there, he was told that information was top secret. So on a whim, he called the Russian Embassy, and the Russians, in what had to be a gleeful tweak of the CIA’s nose, told him.
When the stunned reporter asked them how they came upon that top secret information, they reveled they simply counted all the toilet paper the building ordered each month, and knowing how much other government buildings ordered and their number of employees, they extrapolated the information accurate to plus or minus twenty.
Nice little story? It’s what we call plot. Catchy first line. Second line teasing deeper into it by revealing the what, but withholding the why. Finally, sucked into it now, we reveal the less interesting where and when. Then seeking information in why. And finally answering the contract of the first line with a satisfying ending of how. FYI, I tried out eight opening lines before I came up with the one above.
The basic plot of a novel is someone wants something and strives to attain it. This want could be the reason for start of the novel. A young person goes to New York to become an actor. Or the opening conditions of the story could create the want. A man returns to a parking garage to find it closed with his car locked inside. This actually happened to me which became the opening of If They Ask for a Hand, Only Give Them a Finger. Or a man goes out on the deck of his boat to see a woman sitting in the rain at the end of the dock, the beginning of Me and Snack McGhee. The want of the novel could be anything except sitting in front of a TV and drinking beer for three hundred pages. Hmmm?
Also, the want must propel our protagonist into action. Characterization comes a little later, but for now we need our reader to buy into his/her need. Let’s call our protagonist Protag for brevity and to also allow us to drop the awkward his/her business.
The simplest way I can describe a plot-line is for Protag to be standing at the base of a mountain with a want to get to the top. The desire for climbing Plot-line Mountain could be anything: the pure joy of standing at the top; a love object waiting there; or a pointer to the Holy Grail.
But we must make winning the mountaintop Protag’s most desperate need. If Protag doesn’t really care, why should the reader care? And the need must remain upmost in Protag’s mind until either the goal is reached, or Protag is defeated, or the want is replaced by something more important.
Okay, the most obvious way for Protag to get to the top is to hop in a Humvee, yank the sucker into four-wheeling, and plow straight up the mountain side. The thing is, there’s no conflict here. We might as well drink beer in front of the TV.
So what we must do is to put someone in Protag’s way, like an antagonist. This is the snarling beast from hell who is against us just because we are really nice guys, good looking, stout-hearted, brilliant, brave, and humble. The beast could be a man, woman, Satan, the Gods, fate, the weather, or the mountain itself. The beast could even be the doubt that lingers in Protag’s own mind. And it must always remain in doubt whether Protag is going to make it to the top or not. In fact, failure may be Protag’s fate. What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether Protag wins or loses, but how well Protag plays the game.
On the way to the top Protag must continually face obstacles and overcome them, growing stronger mentally if not physically. We all want to be a winner. So each time Protag scales another barrier, showing guts, tenacity and ingenuity–traits we all believe we have in our best selves–the more intense is the reader’s desire to see Protag succeed.
In Plot part 2, we’ll take up the need for the obstacles to vary in intensity, to occasionally break in protagonist’s favor, and above all, they must be logical.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated July 27, 2014