Plot: A Four-Letter Word
Plot is a four-letter word. Author’s don’t blurt plot out in dialogue or bury it with flag-raising ceremony in an event sequence.
For engaging prose plot can be a first time original idea or a tried and true version with a unique twist.
It is true that many writing texts say there are no new plots under the sun or in the writing universe and we who do the writing, i.e., authors, can be in our interpretation of that which has gone before both right, and wrong. Sometimes simultaneously right and wrong. The world changes everyday and we as authors have our own individualistic perspective.
The energizing aspect of plot is that there’s no right or wrong except that it’s not an event sequence without purpose. That is, an author can write with eloquence that four persons surrounded the dinner table. An autocratic father, a fearing wife, and two sons who don’t speak except when asked to. For illustrative purposes “tell” not “show” words have been used. Yet, there is no plot, no movement forward, merely a descriptive narrative of a common event.
Plot must involve or suggest suspense. Suspense defined as an uncertainty.
What will the protagonist do? Is there a reason for his or her being? How does his or her environment interact? What obstacles? Hidden? Visible? Should the reader care?
Tension is often an overused word when referring to plot, but it is a valuable magnifying glass to determine if plot exists. In an urban environment the citizen will see vehicles moving along a street, but not see the underground infrastructure. That not seen is plot: the infrastructure that keeps the visible story moving. The invisible sewer system carries away the unimportant, which translates into an author not including everything he or she knows. The underground water mains nourish the environment through visible hydrants, which translates into the author only including relevant facts.
There exists much literature about a “three-act structure” for plot. That is, a beginning, middle, and end. This artificial thinking leaves authors struggling, especially in the middle.
Plot is movement. Sure, an author can reach back and grasp that which has gone before, but only as it motivates the present forward. Otherwise the backstory is an unnecessary surplus, a drag on the plot.
While plot is movement, it is not any movement. It is movement with a purpose. An author can add any act to a narrative, but if it’s not related to the overall story it cannot be included as plot. Many authors do this because they have been convinced that every book needs, for example, a dramatic opening. Thus, a kidnapping, a pseudo-kidnapping, a dream sequence, an imagined kidnapping or bar fight between future romance characters grace the first twenty pages. When the reader reaches page twenty-one, he or she is told, sorry, didn’t happen, keep reading. Remember the Bobby shower scene in a primetime soap opera of the 1980s. Don’t you, doesn’t the reader feel cheated. I’d argue yes, and that from reading experience.
How does an author cope? Easy. Delete the buildup except for grounding facts and continue with the relevant plot events that need to be told. Has anyone divined that there is a magic number of story pages. Sorry. No one with authority has. Will a reader? No. The reader will be engrossed by the plot, not count the pages read, and if you conclude with a relevant ending, the reader will be satisfied.
Why? You say. Well, doesn’t a short story satisfy? You’re not writing a short story, but a novel. You have more relevant acts to describe. You do. They’re included. The end comes. The reader won’t be disappointed if you haven’t included dull narrative or weak dialogue. You’ve kept the tension high. In fact, tension appears on every page. Your realistic characters burst forth off the pages into the readers’ imagination.
In summary, add the ingredients of tension, believable characters, and exclude gimmicky and irrelevant actions and you’ve pieced together a plot to grip a passionate reader.
Visit the authorsden.com marketplace, manuscript critique, to learn how Donan Berg can help you with plot. Read his short stories: "Rory's Expectations" or "Adrienne's Eulogy."