Penny Fletcher

Plot is a Verb

May 1, 2017
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Plot is a Verb
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Penny Fletcher

May 2017

“When I think of plot, I first ask myself what’s the concept of, or “idea behind” my story. “
—FLETCHER

Both authors and readers tend to talk about “plot” as if it were an object, like an item in a store you can touch and hold. But plot isn’t something you can put in a cage and keep it like it is. It isn’t still, or static. Plot is a force; it’s continuous movement. That’s why I always treat plot as a verb.

When I think of plot, I first ask myself what’s the concept of, or “idea behind” my story, whether it’s going to be a short magazine article, factual news, or a fiction book. There’s one good way to tell if it’s just an idea or if it can be fleshed into a story with a full-length plot line: write a synopsis first.

When it’s a book, publishers (usually) ask first for a query email, and if they like it, they’ll (usually) ask for a book proposal containing a synopsis, so I write a synopsis first and then a vague outline, although I rarely stick to it. I never submit that first book synopsis to anyone, it’s just to keep me on track. That’s a little harder to do with a magazine piece, because the synopsis must be contained in your first contact or they’ll rarely get back to you.

One Example of a book synopsis I used only for myself.
This synopsis of The Sumerian Secret was just written as a reference for me as I moved from scene to scene. It did not read like the final one I used for submission, but kept me on track throughout the book. It reads:

“NASA files hidden from the world confirm much of the Sumerian texts written more than 6,000 years ago. Sniffing a global byline story, ace reporter Ronnie Monroe digs into the texts and finds herself in danger from several groups.”

Then I wrote a simple outline of where I wanted Ronnie to go and with whom she needed to meet and talk. I also wrote a tentative ending. 

“The first synopsis and outline are never static, because a good plot takes on a life of its own while being written.” —FLETCHER

The first synopsis and outline are never static, because a good plot takes on a life of its own while being written. Sometimes I know where I want to go, but not what small scenes will lead to the big scenes that eventually lead to a climax and satisfying end. Knowing more than simply the “idea” seems to come somewhere after the first fifty or a hundred pages are written. This is almost always after the premise of the story is written and the major characters have been introduced. At that point, I know I must figure out how to get where I need to go to make the idea into a complete story. 

This means our initial synopsis changes as our story changes and that’s just fine, although the original idea of what we want to say and where we want to go – which is the plot– (usually) stays the same as when we started. I keep using the word “usually” because as most of us already know, publishers and publications differ widely. But this isn’t about them, it’s about how we decide whether our story is an idea or a whole story, and if it’s a story, how to move the plot along from start to satisfying finish.

When it’s going to be a piece for magazines or other venues shorter than a book, whether fact or fiction, publishers will usually want a synopsis right in the query letter. So, although I write a synopsis first, I don’t try and send the proposal or e-query before I’m well into the work as I know that the original synopsis I wrote for myself will change.

From this point on, I’m going to talk strictly about fiction books because nonfiction books are usually arranged in an order according to the material that needs to be presented.

Fictional scenes are arranged differently. Moving from scene to scene must be seamless. Otherwise it can slow readers down or possibly confuse them. Now we ask, how are we going to get things readers need to know into view so they can easily follow the plot? What characters and actions, including dialogue, will express these things best? Maybe as a part of the plot you want Charles to leave his wife for Mary. We need to show something that explains why. Maybe his wife is intolerant of him; maybe she doesn’t like him to touch her anymore; maybe she has let herself go and he is disgusted by her; or maybe he has everything anyone could possibly want in a wife and he’s just the cheating kind and has found a new, or another new, woman he prefers.

One Example Could Be:

“No Charles,” Lola said as she started to shut the bathroom door. “You go by yourself. I want to take a bath and just veg out with a few drinks.”
“Lola, do you realize I’ve had to go to the last three office functions by myself? All the others bring spouses.”
“So maybe you’d rather have another spouse,” Lola said as she fully closed the bathroom door.”
He heard the bath water running.
“Screw this. Maybe I do need someone else,” Charles said aloud to himself as he chose his suit.

This small scene could foreshadow several larger scenes until Charles finally leaves his wife. Or there could be many other combinations, pointing in any way you choose for your specific characters. The point is plot is a verb. It’s only used as a noun if we say something like “Charles wants to leave his wife. Lola doesn’t act like she really cares.” Where’s the movement in that?

“Plots can be anything you want them to be.”
—FLETCHER

Circular PlotPlots can be anything you want them to be. We have circular plots where a main character starts out with one attitude and because of the things that happen to him or her in life, becomes someone else. Perhaps bitter. Perhaps more sympathetic. Either way, that’s one example of a “circular plot.”

 

 

Linear PlotExamples of “linear plots” are Indiana Jones quests and The DaVinci Code series. In linear plots, the protagonist is usually after something and must fight someone or something to get it. Linear plots are often used in the genres of quest, adventure or suspense but there’s no “law” that says they must be.

 

pf_plot-moving

There’s so much more that can be written about plot but what’s been said here is a start.

I must add that the final synopsis I wrote for The Sumerian Secret looked very little like the first!

Penny Fletcher

About Regular Contributor
Penny Fletcher
Author, Editor & Coach

Penny Fletcher is the author of both traditionally published and self-published books; has been a journalist and bureau editor for several large companies including Media General Communications Inc., Sunbelt Newspapers and The Tampa Tribune. She has also taught at a local college and through her Florida county library system, as well as worked as an outsource editor for Amazon’s first publishing division, BookSurge. For more information visit: www.pennyfletcher.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked-In. Her suspense-fiction book, The Sumerian Secret, is based on fact and can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

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