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Thursday, 17 October 2013

Editing tips - Plot – Cause and effect

Writers will argue over whether a book should be driven by character or plot. It isn’t so black and white as that.

Plot is the story’s engine, drawing various events together and relating the consequences of characters’ actions in response to those events. Essentially, plot tells you about cause and effect.

Some stories are character-driven while others are driven by the plot. It depends on the type of story. An action-adventure tale will move at a swift pace through several twisting and turning sub-plots while a love story may linger on the dilemmas faced by a number of characters. Whatever type of story it is, both character and plot have to be in harmony.

A plot-heavy story will appear contrived and keep the reader at a distance, while a character-rich tale will pull the reader in to the point where the plot is not evident but simply obstacles faced by this character you’ve got to know.

Plots are relatively easy to think up, it seems. They must be. More than once I’ve been accosted by a would-be writer saying, ‘I’ve got this great plot for a novel. Will you write it for me?’ Well, no, thanks, I’ve got more than enough of my own to work on. Nice to be asked, though.

Some writers don’t have a plot when they start – whether it’s a short story or a novel. They have the kernel of an idea, or a theme, or even an ending in mind. Then they throw in a few characters and see how they react to their situation. It works for some. Tolkien was well into The Fellowship of the Ring when he put his hobbits inside an inn and introduced a ruffian called Strider. At that point Tolkien didn’t know who Strider was or where the book was going! They write by the seat of their pants - pantsers.

Others plan each scene in fine detail, leaving nothing to chance and revel in the constraint this imposes.

Most writers probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes. It depends on the material and that initial spark. If a particular character leaps out at the writer, wanting to be written about, then it invariably becomes a character-driven tale. Private detective Maisie Dobbs jumped fully formed into Jacqueline Winspear’s mind at traffic lights! If a clever twist on a standard theme has popped into the mind, then the test is how to lead up to that twist ending.
I’m biased, I believe in plotting, even for a short story. Writing is much easier if you have a plot-plan to follow. It doesn’t mean you’re in a rut. The plot-plan is a rough-and-ready road, but as the story progresses you’ll find that characters will want to take the occasional more interesting byway. Some writers let the characters wander off at a tangent and never rejoin the original plotted road; others are hard taskmasters and bring the character back in line after an interesting diversion!

Plots should stem from the motivation of your characters. So it’s vital that you get to know the people in your story. Character building is another big issue.

Invariably, you will also be writing to a theme in your story. Make sure that this central idea runs through the story and is embodied in one of more character’s thoughts and actions.

A plot without conflict is not much of a plot. Again, conflict needs another detailed discussion, at another time. Suffice to say that drama must contain some obstacle which the protagonist has to overcome.

By carefully preparing your plot-plan beforehand, you control the occasional diversions and bring everything back on track. By getting to know your characters before starting, you have a good idea how they will react to your plot-plan and how they will shape the story.

Nothing is cast in stone. On occasion I have found that the initial plot-plan was too simplistic and the characters, as they became fleshed out in the writing, suggested more logical and stronger plot directions to take. That’s fine, as long as you remain in charge and don’t let the story completely unravel.

Good plots need to be consistent, convincing and contain character interaction. Weak plots simply take the reader from point A to point B and are usually implausible – they haven’t been thought through.

A story is often about a character’s growth or change through adversity, which is brought about by facing obstacles and overcoming them. The plot provides the means for the character to evolve.

For novel-length work, it is necessary to introduce sub-plots, which can be tests for secondary characters as well as the main protagonist. Yet these sub-plots must move the story forward, serve a purpose and reinforce the theme.

Convoluted plots exist, but they often appear contrived and lose all but the most attentive reader, so it’s advisable to steer clear of complex plot structures.

Every writer enters into a contract with the reader. The writer should not cheat. If the plot requires a twist, then that should be hinted at earlier rather than just being tagged on at the end.

A lengthier version of this subject can be found in Write a Western in 30 Days. (But you saw through my plot and knew I’d say that, didn’t you?)



Marie Lavender said...

Great article, Nik! Some sub-genres of romance are driven by action. Plot is very important to a story, I agree. Even with short stories.

Nik said...

Thanks, Marie! I agree. Plot is the story's engine - without it, you're not going anywhere. My opinion.