Ssh, it’s a plot!

NotebookMany writers sneer at plot. Others embrace it. Just as many don’t know the difference between plot and story and, when challenged, take themselves into a corner and mumble.

The way I see it is this:

  • Story is a sequence of events
  • Plot is the structure behind that sequence of events

It’s perfectly possible to write a good story without worrying about plot. You just start at the beginning and follow your nose. “This happened, then this happened, and this is how it ended.” Stories that are character-driven tend to work this way. Simply drop your characters into a situation and see what happens. Who needs a plan anyway?

A plot implies a plan. Everything you write has to conform to that plan. And that, my friends, can be dangerous.

The worst kind of plot-driven story moves its characters mechanically from point A to point B not because it’s plausible, but because the plot demands it. It happens a lot in Hollywood action movies. That banging noise you can hear on the soundtrack isn’t a hail of bullets; it’s the sound of the plot clunking along like a badly-tuned engine.

Properly tuned, however, plots can soar. Instead of clunking, they tick like Swiss clockwork. And when all the moving parts come together, you get that glorious tingle down your spine. Bad plots deliver unlikely coincidences. Good plots bathe you in delicious inevitability. The very best make you believe in fate.

I’d like to talk for a moment about John Irving. He’s a great ambassador for – and advocate of – plot. In the afterword of his novel Last Night on Twisted River, he describes at length how he meticulously plots his books … by starting at the end and working backwards. Irving determines the emotional state he wants his characters to reach by the climax, then plots in reverse, weaving in all the motivating events that will lead to that ultimate pay-off. Once he’s finished writing the plot backwards, he starts writing the story forwards. Sounds odd? Well, it works for him. And how.

As for me, I love to plot. I do it any number of ways. Here’s a few techniques I’ve used over the years:

  • Mind maps – best with big sheets of paper spread out on the floor. Put everything in bubbles (characters’ names and traits, locations, key events, motivations – everything) and join them all up with squiggly lines. You’ll be amazed at the connections you make.
  • Notebooks – sounds simple, and it is. I have stacks of notebooks filled with stream-of-consciousness writing. Ideas for stories, scenes, lists of questions, lists of names. You name it, it’s there. I circle big ideas so when I flick back through the notebooks they stand out. Some of it’s drivel. Some of it’s gold.
  • Night hours – when I’m going to sleep – or lying wake in the middle of the night unable to sleep – I tell myself stories, or imagine events in stories I’m already planning. Being half-asleep stimulates the imagination. A lot of what comes into my head I forget. If I remember it, it’s probably good.

There’s a hundred other techniques you can use: Post-it notes; index cards; the Outline function of your favourite word processing software. Plan the damn thing out in the form of crop circles in the Wiltshire countryside for all I care. Whatever. There’s no right answer.

There is, however, one very important thing I urge you to remember about plot. It’s this:

  • The very best plots are invisible to the reader

Remember what I said about Swiss clockwork? That’s what it has to be like. However meticulously you plan things, however perfectly all those little wheels mesh together, be sure to hide it all away before you actually start writing. Take that beautiful machine you’ve built and bury it deep under the things that really make your readers want to turn the pages: compelling characters and gripping narrative.

Character. Story. Plot. You need them all. Just remember, plot’s the silent partner. Keep it quiet. Ssh.

This article first appeared in slightly different form on Wayne Writes.

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