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Monday, June 27, 2022

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story’s Plot!)


According to the dictionaries, a plot is a "storyline," "main story," or "plan" in a literary work. A search online will tell you that a plot is a "series of events," "a list of checkpoints to move a story," "how the story is delivered in a book," "the structure of events," "what happens," "a chain of events" in a story.

You know what? To be frank, all these definitions of "plot" stink.

Not only are they pretty vague, but some of them don't even check out. 

Plot is "the structure of events"? No! That's structure. 

Plot is "what happens." Really? So I can write a story about a character looking out a window at a boring neighborhood with nothing meaningful, then have him lie in bed getting nowhere, and get up and get a snack out of a fridge, and then watch T.V. with nothing meaningful, significant, or insightful? Sounds like a plotless story to be sure!

Plot is "the main story." This doesn't even make sense. Story is more than plot. And what about the secondary plotlines? They don't fit the definition of "plot"?

I could go through the other definitions, but I think you get the point.

For the last couple of years, I have been thinking and studying plot quite a bit. Because on the one hand, I totally know what plot is, but on the other, at a deeper level, I have no clue what plot is. Like, I know what it is, but what IS it ReAlLlLy???

In the past, I knew writing great plots was something I struggled with--and what's worse, I knew I was struggling, but couldn't find the magic pill that would make everything click together for me! It's not that I didn't understand anything about plot, but I could never get what I was hearing to work into a big, old, powerful plotline that would leave the reader breathless, like I wanted. 

When I asked others for help and resources, most people couldn't provide what I needed or sent me to structure. And for the record, plot isn't structure, which is what many seem to think (more on that in a bit).

Finally, everything clicked into place at a level it hadn't before for me. In short, I'll be doing a few posts on plot to explain it all to my past self, and maybe it will help someone else struggling.

Or maybe you already understand plot at a deeper level than I did.

In any case, with such crummy definitions, I want to start by talking about what plot is not

And surely I've caught myself and others trying to make the following things into plot. And have sometimes even heard instructors talk about them as if they are plot. I realize some of these things will sound obvious, but you might be surprised how people can disguise them.


What Plot is Not (How Not to Fix Your Story's Plot)


Setting, Worldbuilding, and Description

Certain people in the writing world like to put a lot of emphasis on setting and worldbuilding, to the point it sounds like it's the only thing you need to focus on to make a story successful.

Setting and worldbuilding are very important pieces of storytelling. With strong descriptions, they transport the readers into the scene, so that they feel like they are there with the characters. 

They help writers better show the story, by making the story more concrete.

A lot of beginning writers don't show, but instead tell. And they have to be taught to appeal to the senses to make the story less abstract and more accessible. Appealing to the senses naturally means including setting, because that's where the appeals come from. How does the place look, sound, smell, taste, or feel? All those can be important.

Worldbuilding can be important in speculative fiction, as well as in historical fiction, and sometimes even beyond that. It makes the landscape and societies more interesting and more authentic.

Description can move beyond setting, of course. One may describe a character, for example. But it's still something physical that appeals to one of the senses. 

Sometimes I've seen writers who I believe were told to try to strengthen weak parts of their plot by adding more setting, worldbuilding, and description. This might somewhat disguise deeper issues, but it doesn't fix the underlying problems

Most of the time, you can't fix a plot by adding more setting, worldbuilding, and descriptions.

Of course, some stories feature a main conflict with the setting (person vs. nature), in which case, it will be more important to the plot. But it, itself, is not plot.


Interesting Characters or Relationships

I'm definitely a character > plot kind of gal (which explains a few of my past troubles). But interesting characters and/or their relationships aren't plot either. 

Having your character meet interesting person after interesting person isn't necessarily . . . interesting to the audience. It's filler. 

Sometimes writers try to "fill up" the story by bringing in a bunch of characters. Things get slow? Bring in a new character! And of course, you must get their full backstory and paragraphs about their personality. 

Even if you don't have a big cast, you may find yourself circling around the past of your characters or describing superficial qualities--such as their likes and dislikes--that don't matter to the story. Does your audience really need to know that your protagonist eats a sunny-side-up egg on sausage on toast, drizzled with a bit of syrup, every day for breakfast? Because when she was a child, that's what her grandma made for her when she slept over there? And her grandma never even had cold cereal in her house? Probably not.

Now, sometimes little details like that make the character feel authentic. But those things don't replace the actual story. They should enhance what's already there. And they certainly shouldn't "fill up" the story.

Like setting and worldbuilding, relationships are important to storytelling. Most stories will feature a secondary plotline (or B Story) about a relationship. And relationship plotlines are great because they often fit nicely between the protagonist's internal plotline and the main external plotline. Some stories (like romances) feature a relationship plotline as the main plotline. 

But the relationship itself isn't the plot. It's the progression of the relationship that makes it into a plotline. This means it must include other components to make it progress.


Information & Exposition

A long time ago, when I was trying to make a plot better, I thought (though I didn't realize this is what I was doing) adding more explanation would do just that. I would brainstorm pages full of explanations for why X happened, or how such-and-such magic system worked, so of course, A event in B scene was awesome! Just look at the data! ๐Ÿ˜‰

I was trying to make the plot I had, seem cooler and more valid by explaining the content more thoroughly. 

If I could just brainstorm more things, I could fix it! Riiiight???

Turned out I was brainstorming the entirely wrong things, and didn't know it.

I would end up with a lot of cool info, but then couldn't figure out how to add it without writing info-dumps.

I would end up with cool backgrounds about how this particular magic worked and had evolved over time, but adding it ruined the pacing and the plot still didn't seem right.

Information isn't plot. Which brings us to the next one . . . 


Cool & Entertaining Concepts 

Sometimes I think telling writers they can brainstorm and write anything is their downfall (like it was for me just above). They can end up brainstorming tons of cool or entertaining concepts that don't actually belong to or improve the story. It's more helpful if you add some restrictions to your brainstorming and at least narrow down what you need to brainstorm and why

One of my favorite series has a lot of amazing and cool concepts in it. The author strings together so many different subjects into his setting, worldbuilding, characters, and even relationships. His concepts feel like they resonate with my soul. 

But when I was revisiting the series, now having been in this industry for so long, I realized the plot of one of the installments was pretty . . . lackluster. (Which explains why I couldn't remember very well what actually happened in that volume). If it was the first volume of the series, I don't think the series would have been as successful. 

Do I still like the series? Yes! But was the plot of that volume strong? No.

I can enjoy the other aspects of story--and you are allowed to like stories that don't have strong plots--but when it comes to writing a great plot? Cool and entertaining concepts can't do that on their own. They need to have purpose in the cause-and-effect trajectory of the plotline.

Is some of it filler in disguise? Probably. I still enjoyed it, but it's doesn't have a great plot.


Withheld Context (Teasers & False Tension)

In an effort to make a story more exciting, sometimes writers withhold important information that the audience needs, to understand what is going on (context). (I used to kind of do this sort of thing early on.) There might be a lot of thrilling or intriguing content, but the audience can't draw any clear conclusions from it. The best they can do is guess what it means, based on their own personal experiences or what they know from prior in the story.

When contextual information is withheld, it usually creates either teasers or false tension (that, is, assuming the story or scene doesn't start in medias res, which means the context will likely get filled in during the rising action). 

Teasers function off emotional promises to the audience. They make a lot of emotional appeals without explaining what they mean. You've likely seen a lot of teaser trailers for movies. In the movie industry, there are two types of trailers: theatrical and teaser. A theatrical trailer will tell you what the story is about. The teaser trailer will promise specific emotional appeals to the audience--romance, adventure, humor--without saying what the story really is. In short, it holds back context. If you want to know what the clips actually mean, you have to see the movie. So, the other thing teasers promise is if the audience sticks around, they'll get the context.

However, the audience will only stick around without context for so long, which is why teasers are best kept short and used sparingly. Most stories don't even use any teasers. (You can learn more about teasers in my article, "Working with Teasers"--it'd take too long to fully explain them here.)

I love a good teaser, but it can't replace plot. Teasers can enhance plot and strengthen other things. But your "plot" shouldn't get its excitement largely from the fact you are withholding contextual information from the audience. And if you are holding back contextual information, it better be pretty good by the time the audience gets it, and not a letdown. 

Which leads me to false tension.

False tension happens when the writer again withholds contextual information to try to create tension. The reason it's called "false tension" (or "false suspense") is because if the audience had the full context, it wouldn't actually hold any tension. For example, a story opens with a scene where the character is running away from someone seemingly dangerous. The tone is creepy. Finally the dangerous person catches up, and it turns out to be the character's best friend, and they are playing tag. Everything is sunshine and rainbows.

Some people feel that false tension is always a no-no. But it can be used to good effect in certain scenarios and in specific genres. For example, many horror films implement false tension alongside real tension, so the audience isn't sure if what is about to pop out will be friend or foe. You can also use false tension to lure the audience into a moment of relief before smacking them with something real right after. (But again, this isn't a post on false tension.)

False tension isn't plot, and when it tries to be plot over and over again, it creates a lot of empty threats. Plot is plot. False tension is just a tool (for better or for worse).


Theme

Plot plays into theme, just as character plays into plot and theme. Heck, even setting often plays into theme. But theme is not plot.

Long passages of symbolism or introspection about what the story means or paragraphs of insight and wisdom about life don't make up for a lost plot. (And actually, isn't the bones of what makes theme anyway.) Again, when used well, these things can enhance the story that is already there. They might disguise underlying problems for a little while, but they won't fix them. So watch out for adding more and more "meaning" to a story that is actually about nothing meaningful.


Structure

Alright, here is the big one. Plot is not structure. Structure is often lumped in with plot, and for good reason. They are so deeply intertwined that sometimes you can't tell the difference. But they aren't the same thing. Some people may argue with me on that, but in short, the reason it's not the same thing, is because you can have a story with the same events, structured in different ways. For example, I could write a story where a woman moves, falls in love, gets married, and has a baby, and I can structure it in that order. I could also structure it in a different order. I could open the story in narrative in medias res, with her falling in love, then backtrack to when she moves, then speed up to the marriage. I could even structure it backward: baby, marriage, falling in love, moving. While this would be very atypical, it has and can be done.

If I were adapting a long book to film, I may decide to have the first film cover her moving and falling in love, and make sure it has its own solid structure. Then the second film may be about her getting married and having a baby, with its own solid structure. Same plot, but now it is structured differently. Sure, the plot may need a few tweaks to accommodate that, and it may not be as satisfying as the book, but it can be done. (If you want to read more about plot vs. structure, I did a post a couple of years ago that used burritos and sandwiches as examples, "Plot vs. Structure: The Difference Explained.")

Plot is not any of those things, and yet so many writers try to fix a flimsy plot with them. It might disguise the problem, but the story will not be as good as if you actually strengthened the plot

So what is it then? And how do we do that?

Glad you asked ๐Ÿ˜‰ I've put together a series on the principles of plot. As is always wise, we will start with the basics: The Primary Principles of Plot. And these aren't about "inciting incident," "rising action," or "climax"--though those are important structural elements deeply intertwined with plot. From there I'll share the secondary, tertiary, and beyond--which build off the primary principles. See ya then!


4 comments:

  1. This article got me thinking about your film analogy.
    If a book were a film, a film requires different groups of people to make it:
    A Director, Editor, Crew, Actors, Stage etc.

    Not any single one of those elements can complete a film, they all have to work together.
    So, I agree that Structure is not plot. Worldbuilding is not plot. Theme is not plot, its all of them and more.

    Perhaps plot can be simply described as archetypes moving through time to solve a problem. Or, archetypes standing steadfast against a problem over time.

    Can it be that simple? (I doubt it!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. September C. FawkesJuly 9, 2022 at 5:27 PM

      Hi Will, I really like that as a quick, simple definition. It reminds me a bit of Dramatica Theory. I tend to think in terms of goals and obstacles (antagonistic forces), but solving a problem (or remaining steadfast against one) is a good way to put it (and maybe even more simple than goals & obstacles).

      It's probably too simple for my past self to get very far with, but I think it works well as a brief definition.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the great explaination. Best wishes, Michael

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. September C. FawkesJuly 9, 2022 at 5:28 PM

      Hey Michael, thanks!

      Delete

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