Skip to content

Plot or Plod Part 2: Making Connections

Monday, October 22, 2007

One of the most important lessons to learn about plot is that it is different from narrating a sequence of events—it is connecting the events together with emotion and meaning. E. M. Forster explained it best. “The king died, and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” Why is the second plot? Because there is now a cause-and-effect that gives meaning to the queen’s death. Plotting a story is more than just cataloguing the events that happen. It is connecting all of the events with the characters’ internal conflicts and with the other events in the story.

This is one of the main reasons why the experts I quoted in the first Plot or Plod post all point to character as a main focus of plotting. The characters are where the connections come from.

Even for SOTP writers, when we begin to develop a story idea, we typically know the general direction our stories are going. I recently had the opportunity to talk plotting with award-winning CBA author Tamera Alexander. She admitted to being mostly a Pantster (a seat-of-the-pants writer) but did say that, even though she doesn’t plot the whole story out, she always knows what her ending scene will be. The story is what happens between the opening and closing scene. Plotting is how we make all of those story events tie together and, ultimately, make sense.

Just as with character development, when developing your plot, you want to constantly be asking “why?” Why would she make that decision? Why would she go there? Why would she think she would be able to get away from the bad guy by running UPstairs? Why is the bad guy a bad guy? Why is the hero going to the place where he is going to have a humorous run-in with the heroine?

I recently posted a question on my Facebook page about why shows like LOST and Heroes are so addictive. Someone said it’s because of the soap-opera-like serial storytelling—each show builds upon the last. Someone else mentioned it’s the ensemble cast of characters. I think it’s actually both. Without a cast of characters that we fall in love with, the continuing story wouldn’t be of interest. One of the most fun things about LOST is the flashbacks where they reveal that most of our survivors have crossed paths in the three to five years leading up to boarding flight 815—or at least bumped into each other in Sydney or at the airport before they got on the plane. Instead of connecting them in their backstories, Heroes has made connections by slowly bringing all of the heroes together. Their paths cross now and again throughout the first season until they all come together in the finale, where Peter can absorb their powers and defeat Sylar (or so it seems). The plot hinges on the characters, on the decisions they make, on their emotional/visceral reactions to the conflicts they face, on the reason why they do the things they do.

Star Trek liked to play with the chain-reaction concept. In the Star Trek universe, they used the premise that each decision the characters made actually created an alternative universe where they’d made the opposite decision. Occasionally a character would cross over into an alternate universe where one person making one decision differently created a totally different reality—usually where all of the good guys are now bad guys. In an episode of the Original Series, they visited a planet that was basically a doppleganger of Earth . . . except it was an Earth where the Roman Empire never fell, which made it completely different than the Earth we know.

Plotting is about chain reactions. If your character makes a decision, there have to be consequences—for good or bad. Things can’t just happen in your story. Unlike in life, the events that your characters experience must have meaning, must connect with something else going on in the story. Otherwise, you’re leading your reader down a bunch of rabbit trails, but actually going nowhere.

This is one of the problems I’ve experienced in reading the Lord of the Rings books. Tolkien was so immersed in his world that he wanted to include all of the history, all of the lore, of the peoples who had been long-gone from Middle Earth in the narrative. There are long passages telling stories of characters like Beren and Luthien which, while they would be good stories in their own right, in reality have nothing to do with the forward progress of the plot of this story: trying to destroy the One Ring.

I’ve been busily working on the second draft of Ransome’s Honor (I’ve completed revisions through chapter 23—or about 65,000 words), and one of the things I keep asking myself is: Does this dialogue / introspection / action / description / scene have an important impact on the plot? I’m combing through the narrative to make sure that everything my characters do connect somehow with the forward progress of the story. By doing this, I’ve managed to cut about a chapter and a half—and I know that once my crit partners get a hold of it, I’ll be able to cut even more, especially once I get all of the new conflicts/events of the last third squared away.

Again, going back to the experts and their comments on characters. It’s all well and good to be constantly throwing conflict at your characters—in fact, it’s great. Don’t pull punches. Just make sure that the conflicts connect the characters to the plot, that there is a reason, a purpose, for the conflict to exist. And don’t forget to ask why.

  1. Monday, October 22, 2007 2:43 pm

    Good explanation on the difference between story and plot. I’ve still never seen an episode of Lost (eek!) so maybe, just maybe, one of these days we’ll rent it.

    It’s all about forward progression! Yay!


  2. Monday, October 22, 2007 3:00 pm

    Pushing forward here too. I just realized I don’t have a last scene in mind for this new novel. Hmmm…time to brainstorm a bit. 🙂

    I’ve never seen LOST either.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: