plot is a process, and how to work it
There’s something beautiful about plot.
Yet plot seems to be a four-letter word, associated with generic or formulaic fiction. But if there isn’t any plot, there isn’t any story (no matter how creatively it’s been constructed), and story is why we read (or at least most of us).
Plot gives the juice and forward thrust to fiction, but more than that: plot is about pattern and meaning. Any exercise in storytelling is an exercise in making meaning: taking the seemingly random and disparate elements of life and showing how they weave together, and why, and the point of it all (even if the point is that there’s no point, which is a point in itself and so undermines that particular thesis, but whatever).
There’s a rich intellectual satisfaction in that.
The human mind is geared towards patterns and relationships and filling in the gaps; we want to know how everything connects, whether we’re scientists puzzling out the mysteries of the universe or novelists investigating the mysteries of the human heart.
Perhaps one of the problems with plot is the visual metaphor through which it’s so often presented. Plot — and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — is often described as the scaffolding or skeleton on which you hang the elements of your story. This gives the idea of plot as something constructed and workmanlike….and solid, and fixed, as if the ‘bones’ of plot are the bars that hem you in creatively.
This is what took me way too long (and three published novels) to figure out about plot:
Plot is a process.
As Ronald B. Tobias puts it in his book on MASTER PLOTS:
We tend to talk about plots as if they were objects. All of our plot metaphors describe plot as if it were some tangible thing that came in a box. We categorize plots like items in a story inventory. We talk about plot as if it were a dead thing, something static…Plot is dynamic, not static.
Tobias makes the point that “plot is diffusive; it permeates all the atoms of fiction. It can’t be deboned…It is [like] electromagnetism — the force that draws the atoms of the story together. It correlates images, events and people.”
The idea that plot is process illuminates, to me, why outlines are problematic. Don’t get me wrong — I believe in outlines, and I outline my own projects like mad. But I learned — repeatedly — that adhering to my outline often worked against the novel, and what the novel wanted to be. In order for the outline to be effective, I had to keep revising it as the novel progressed, so that the outline informs the novel but the growing novel also informs the outline. Since plot isn’t static, the outline couldn’t be either, nor the relationship between the two.
I think there are two reasons for this:
1. Your first ideas are never your best ideas — often your second, third and fourth ideas aren’t your best ideas either (I call these your ‘surface ideas’). Since an outline is written before you start writing the novel, it’s often composed of a bunch of surface ideas.
2. Creativity is a process. Action begets action. You can plan and outline all you want (and I do) but the actual story doesn’t take shape until you actually write the damn thing.
The act of writing — good writing — draws from the deep part of our mind. We go into a kind of zone — a writing trance, a waking dream — that slows our brainwaves and allows us to access our underground storehouse of memories, images, associations.
We think on two different levels: there’s our so-called rational, conscious mind that insists on explaining the world to us (whether or not that explanation is accurate), and our subconscious mind which absorbs all the bits of information that life is constantly beaming into us. Most of this information our rational mind filters out because, in the moment, it doesn’t seem relevant, and because preservation of sanity is a good thing.
But when we write, we’re drawing on the stuff that we don’t know we know, as well as on the stuff we know we know (or think we know but don’t).
Which means we’re also writing two different stories: there’s the surface story, the one we think we’re writing (which is the one we have in outline), and the true story, the deep story, the one that our subconscious is working on behind the scenes and sending up to us in flashes of insight if only we slow down enough to pay attention.
What this process requires, however, is a tolerance for ambiguity. For what I described in an earlier blog post as “the muck and murk of writing”: the sense that you’re slogging through a dark swamp with no exit in sight (and whether or not you have a full outline, at least in my experience, doesn’t seem to matter).
We like to have a plan in place, we like to move through an orderly and predictable checklist, but creativity doesn’t sequence so easily. The process works off itself. You show up, you see what you already have, you descend into the muck and the murk, and let the process take you further along.
You do what Eric Maisel describes as encountering the work.
Plot is the electromagnetic force that brings together premise and character. If, as Tobias points out, plot is the pattern of action, then character is the pattern of motivation, and you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the what without the why.
Premise is the central idea, or theme, that gets your story going. According to Lajos Egri in his classic THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, a good premise is
composed of three parts, each of which is essential…The first part of his premise suggests character…The second part suggests conflict, and the third part…suggests the end of the [story].
So the premise behind Othello is: Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.
Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.
Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.
And so on. The point of your central premise is not to be original. Originality comes from you: that mash-up of mind and personality and beliefs and obsessions and quirky worldview, as well as the unique framework of life experience (and reading) from which you draw your material.
As you slog through the mudwork of process, your premise is your compass. It points you in the direction you want to go. It also informs (or is informed by) your choice of characters. As Egri points out, character dictates plot. Would Macbeth have ended the same way if it wasn’t Macbeth but Gandhi in the central role? Or Luke Skywalker? You get my point.
Plot is cause-and-effect, and although this seems elemental enough I didn’t fully begin to grasp this until the (extensive) revisions of my third published novel.
But cause-and-effect gets compared to links in a chain, and the process seems more involved…and embroidered…than that.
Plot is one thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing…etcetera. The end result could be as expansive as a tree with a dripping canopy of branches, but it all traces back to the original seed that sparked off the process in the first place.
That strange biological life force that holds the tree together, and keeps it a tree instead of a horse or cow or random bits of bark and leaves — is your plot.
Plot is also artful. As Tobias puts it:
No writer wants his fiction to be so obvious as to flash a neon sign that says PLOT! You don’t want [the causes of your cause-and-effects] to be so obvious that the reader can’t fall victim to the charms of the story. You want to write in such a way that what you write about seems just a natural part of the story you’ve created.
In other words, you don’t digress, or go on tangents, or use asides — these dilute the power of the story. Tobias quotes Ford Maddox Ford: “A good novel needs all the attention the reader can give it.”
You only appear to digress, or go on tangents, or use asides (this is the “art that conceals your Art”). Because in the end, everything connects. As Ford says, “Not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.”
You work the cause-and-effect in a casual manner, so that the elements of your plot are not obvious (which I suspect is what people really mean when they say something is ‘formulaic’ or ‘generic’ or ‘predictable’).
But nothing in fiction can be incidental. If something doesn’t serve the story, no matter how beautifully written, you have to kill it. You have to slaughter those darlings. Your job as a writer is to keep growing your premise and advancing your story. The trick is to distract your reader with your right hand so that he or she can’t possibly know what the left hand is doing.
Let me explain it in cinematic terms. We’ve placed the props on the set of the first act. The shotgun is on the back wall. Depending on the director’s shot, he can make the shotgun obvious, with a close-up of it, or he can camouflage the shotgun among the other objects in the room with a medium shot. The close-up calls attention to the shotgun, and anyone who’s ever seen at least one murder mystery knows exactly what’s afoot. But if the director is coy and doesn’t make the shotgun obvious, it will appear unimportant*. Only later…will the viewer realize how important it was.
This same rule applies for conversations and characters. By making the causal world appear casual, the reader accepts the convention that fiction is [as random and casual and digressive] as life.
Only writers know it just ain’t so.
* the movie MATCH POINT, one of my all-time favorites, is an excellent example of this