Crank up the organ grinder and gather around the popcorn, ’cause we’re almost at the end of the dancing monkey series. For our second-last entry, John Farrell asked:
I have awful problems constructing a plot. How do you do that?
Apparently you folks don’t want to go with the easy questions, huh? This is not a topic where I’m known to be *concise*, so I’m going to set myself a word-budget on this one and send you off into the wide world with some reading homework, ’cause really, plot is big.
Here we go:
EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PLOT IN 1,069 WORDS OR LESS
1. PROTAGONIST, ANTAGONIST – FIGHT!
Most plots hang off a pretty simple dynamic designed drive a story forward. It goes something like this: your protagonist wants something really badly; your antagonist denies your protagonist the thing they really want; delicious, awesome conflict ensues. Take Lord of the Rings as an example – Frodo wants to live a nice, ordinary life in the shire; Sauron will destroy the world if he does that; therefore there is a whole lot of walking and fighting and stuff.
2. CHARACTERS HAVE LAYERS
If you’re reading this you’re probably an SF nerd, which means you read that last example and thought “now, wait, at the start of the story Frodo wants to go off and have adventures like his uncle?” Which is true, for what it’s worth; have yourself a reader cookie.
This is the tricky thing about a well-written character – they tell themselves they want something at the beginning the story, then discover they *really* want something else as a result of the god-awful trauma the narrative puts him through. Really smart writers seed all sorts of clues about “real” want early in the narrative too – for all Frodo’s rhetoric about wanting to be like Bilbo, it takes him *months* to get off his arse and actually go adventuring once the adventuring is required.
In many stories the thing the character *thinks* they want is actually the direct opposite of the thing they *actually* want. Frodo wants adventure, but truly craves peace and quiet in the shire; Luke Skywalker wants to become an imperial fighter pilot, but actually becomes a sword-wielding Jedi; characters in rom-coms think they hate each other, but secretly they’re destined to be all true-love-forever.
3. THE CLIMAX IS A CHOICE
Forget the action – the climax of any plot is when a character makes a choice, and the most powerful climaxes are generally the person making that choice is the protagonist and the choice is profoundly tied to the stories themes. More importantly, those choices are going to change the damn world forever, either metaphorically or literally.
Once again, Star Wars is a great example of this – the entire story builds to the moment that Luke chooses to turn off his damn computer and trust the force. Better yet, it’s accompanied by a particularly likeable secondary character choosing to come back and be a hero instead of a scruffy nerf-herding mercenary, saving Luke from certain death.
It’s that moment that gives the big Death Star explosion sequence that follows its real power and create the very real sense that the Galaxy is Never Going to Be The Same Again. Without them, you’ve essentially just got some special effects. Or, you know, the Prequel Trilogy.
4. YES, BUT WE WERE SPEAKING OF CONSTRUCTING PLOT, NOT CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT
Here’s the dirty secret: characters and conflict are you plot. In the classic three-act structure that’s so beloved of films, theatre, novels, television, and, well, me, getting the conflict and the character’s right pretty much fills in the major tent-poles that keep your plot upright.
For instance, that moment I’m talking about where what your protagonist thinks they want morphs into *what your protagonist really wants? In long-form narrative that’s essentially the middle of your story and represents what we call a mid-point reversal.
That moral choice climax? That’s the thing that takes place late in your third chapter, and once you’ve reached it your job is to get the damn hell out of your story asap ’cause there’s nothing less to be said.
That period where the character says they want something, but subconsciously resist it? That’s your first act, and it ends at the point where dark riders show up in the shire Uncle Owen and Aunt Bereu are killed by storm-troopers shit hits the fan and the protagonist can no longer ignore the antagonist and their forces.
Essentially, the classic plot structure is just a convenient pattern of events that can be arranged in such a way as they stretch out the resolution of conflict for as long as possible.
If you want a really detailed discussion of plot structure and you’re in Brisbane, I recommend signing up for one of the QWC’s Toolkit for Writers courses in October since they’ll cover this sort of thing. If you prefer something more book-based, try tracking down copies of things like Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist (preferably in its yellow-covered 1st edition, trust me) or Robert McKee’s Story, or even, god help you, Christopher Vogler’s The Writers’ Journey. Or, you know, hit the internet which is full of advice about this sort of thing. All of these will introduce you to the big default three-act structure, and while there are others, the three-acter is a good starting point due to its familiarity.
Really, though, you can get away with an awful lot if you get the conflict, reversal, climax pattern right, even without knowing the bits that go on in-between.
5. SHORT STORIES WILL MESS WITH YOUR MOJO
Short stories are tricky beasts, ’cause they look at the overall plot structure and throw out the bits at the beginning and the bits at the end and spend an awful lot of time *suggesting* the missing bits of the plot have actually taken place. Short Stories are, usually, all second-and-third act.
My advice for short stories: make sure you nail the moral choice part of the climax. Trust me when I tell you it will bring your editors joy, if only ’cause they can identify something that actually looks like an ending.
6. PLOT DOESN’T MEAN SPIT
My final advice about plot is this: stop stressing about it. Lots of writers get hung-up on plotting because they think it’s the most important thing about writing, and in reality it’s one of a handful of skills that make fiction work.
In fact, when you break plot down to its constituent parts, it’s actually kinda…dull. Which is why people telling you about a story is rarely as interesting as actually reading the damn story, where the conflict and the character and the voice are all working in unison. I’m actually a terrible plotter, but I can get by as a writer ’cause I’ve got a bunch of other skills that can be used to patch-up the unsightly holes in my skill-set.