Skip to content

Plot or Plod Part 1: Give Your Story an EKG

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

As I’m certain you can well imagine, there’s a very good reason behind how I came up with the title of this series. We’ve all read them (and perhaps thrown them across the room)—those books that just plod along, that seem to be going nowhere in particular: the navel-gazing introspection; the passages describing the way a dragon fly’s wings shimmer in the fading sunlight; the overly superfluous, ubiquitous, even-an-English-major-might-not-know-it vocabulary; the angst-ridden, whiney, on-the-journey-of-discovering-self-is-nothing-and-yet-everything characters. These are the kinds of novels that happen when the author has a love affair with the words, not the story. YAWN!

I don’t necessarily want to read a book that is so action packed I never get a chance to take a breather, unless I put the book down. I haven’t read Robert Ludlum’s books, but I understand from those who have, he does take plenty of downtime away from the action (apparently in a Clancy-esque need to describe technical stuff in detail). But even with as frenetic as the films are (the third being the most action-packed), they still have lulls in the action to give the viewer a chance to breathe, to catch up, to relax a moment before the next crisis hits.

If asked to draw a plot line on a graph, most of us would draw something like this:

(where the Y-axis [upright] represents level of conflict/suspense/action). This is a good, basic plot. There is rising suspense and action as the plot progresses and the conflicts increase.

Unfortunately, a lot of stories turn out more like this:

Flat-lining, either far short of including a lot of conflict, or throwing such a steady stream of conflict at the reader that there is no actual movement at all.

If you were actually to look at the plot lines of some of the best plot-driven novels, they would look more like an EKG read-out:

Many of these up and down moments in the plot will come from your characters. It’s no coincidence that the first three chapters of The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman are all on characterization. Sol Stein spends most of his two chapters on plotting discussing characters. It’s one of Don Maass’s five elements of plotting, and Ansen Dibell defined plot as what the characters do.

Well, I’ve already done a series on creating characters, so I’m not going to rehash all of that in this series as well. Suffice it to say, you must have good characters to have a good plot. If a story is to have one weakness and still be an enjoyable read, it’s in plot—because if the reader doesn’t relate with the characters, they won’t relate to the plot of the story, no matter how good. Characters are the portal through which the reader enters the story. The character is the avatar for the reader—the ultimate role-playing game.

Now, with all this talk of rising action and suspense, I know it sounds like I’m talking about something that is more action related, something that has life-and-death consequences. While those are the easiest stories to use as illustrations for plotting—because they’re plot-driven—what I plan to get into in this series is looking at how plot works at its most basic levels, which can then be applied to all genres.

Think about the plot of your current project. While we want to be constantly raising the stakes for the characters, it does not follow that the conflict, action, and/or suspense must always be rising also (or rising and falling at the same time—but that’s another post). Characters must experience some successes along with the setbacks, the obstacles, the thwarting of their desires. They must be able to stop and take a deep breath, so that the reader can, too.

If you’ve ever been to a classical music venue and heard a symphony played in its entirety, it depicts exactly this type of EKG writing—the rising and swelling of the music, the crescendo to the fortissimo followed by a decrescendo into pianissimo. But even though the second movement may be softer, there’s a tension behind it, a building toward that third movement; and then finally, it crashes into the climax of the piece—think the cannons firing and church bells chiming (and fireworks shooting off) at the end of the “1812 Overture.”

That’s the kind of bang we want our plots to have!

  1. Tuesday, October 16, 2007 11:09 am

    EKG–I love it! You’re right about some books existing more for verbage than for story. Double yawn! Good reminder to put in breathers, I don’t always do that =)


  2. Tuesday, October 16, 2007 2:38 pm

    As a semi-visual person, could you possibly break down a familiar book or movie into the ups and downs of a rising plot so I could see it? Like the Wizard of Oz or GWTW? Or High Noon, or LOTR? 😀


  3. Tuesday, October 16, 2007 5:55 pm

    I totally get what you mean by the EKG. It’s basically what my husband said I needed after he read my first draft– it looked more like your first graph (always rising, no breaks) and he found it exhausting.

    “Can you slow it down?” was one of his critique suggestions.

    I’m still trying to decide what could be relaxing lulls that won’t be boring (hmmm, time to pull out a few more sample books…)

    Would you say there’s a general rule of external action alternated with internal or 1-on-1 (character-building) dialogue? Before looking this is the vague idea I have…


  4. Carol Collett permalink
    Tuesday, October 16, 2007 7:53 pm

    Very cool analogy, Kaye. I’m for sure in flatline territory. I’m hoping the story I’m outlining for NaNo will convert back to normal sinus rhythm!


  5. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Friday, October 14, 2016 7:43 pm

    I gave my best friend, an avid reader, what she liked and disliked and what genres she preferred. Funny…the one thing she said was she couldn’t stand it when the author went on and on and on about a description without character interaction. It made her crazy and she wouldn’t read the book.

    Likewise I hadn’t thought about the characters driving the plot. I can’t wait to read more of your blog!!

    Thank you, Kaye!!!



  1. Plot or Plod Part 3: . . . and ACTION! «
  2. Hooking the Reader: Scene Two, Take Five «
  3. Make sure parallels pack a punch for suspense » Jordan McCollum
  4. Suspense fixes » Jordan McCollum
  5. Secret sauce: tension check | Jordan McCollum

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: