The Art of Fiction: The Plot Thickens
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. The Plot Thickens is the third in her series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
"The difference between story and plot is a simple one." —Lenard-Cook
If you’ve ever asked a child about his or her day in school, you’ve likely already encountered the difference between story and plot. “I went to the store,” the child’s story begins, then proceeds in a linear fashion through the child’s day. Even if something unusual or exciting happened at lunch, in the child’s version, you won’t hear about it until the linear retelling arrives at lunch-time.
The difference between story and plot is a simple one. Consider these points:
Story is an arrangement of events; plot adds causality. In a story, we might say, “I went to the store. Helen stayed home.” When we create a plot for this story, however, we add a cause: “I went to the store because Helen wouldn’t.” With story, the question is always, “And then?” With plot, the question is always, “ Why?” Story in linear. Plot is, as E. M. Forster puts it, “ a pattern of cause and effect in the process of change.”
From Story to Plot
So what happens when we give this story a plot? Here’s one possible answer: “Helen wouldn’t go to the store because she never left the house anymore.” My interest is piqued—how about yours? That’s because with the addition of a plot, our story begins where the pattern of cause and effect begins.
At the same time, what’s not important to our narrative is no longer here. It can be particularly difficult to delete occurrences when you’re relating something that really happened. Your initial temptation will likely be to put in every detail, no matter how important it may be to your plot. The problem is that if something’s not important, your telling will bog down in those details, your plot won’t have rising action, and there’s a good chance you’ll lose your reader because s/he’ll lose interest.
Wait. Rising action? I’m getting ahead of my story here. So let me take a slight step back—a sort of plot loop—and illustrate how events are arranged in a classic plot.
"Begin by imagining your narrative divided iinto four roughly equal sections." —Lenard-Cook
Arranging Your Events
Begin by imagining your narrative divided into four roughly equal sections. If you have a twenty page short story, for example, each section will be five pages long. How you arrange the events that happen in each section will add up to your plot.
1. Establishing the situation
In the first section, you’ll ask the “what if” that’s at the heart of your narrative. Your reader will discover what’s at stake as you introduce the oppositions that begin your narrative’s forward motion. There are as many kinds of oppositions as there are stories. Yours may involve—to name but a few—conflict, doubt, struggle, or rivalry, and may be internal or external. You have one-fourth of your narrative to set this up.
2. Rising action
Once your oppositions have been established, you’ll begin to deepen them. This is what’s called rising action, and will take us through the midpoint of your narrative, where there will be a shift toward more rapid movement. Every scene will have a question and an answer, and the reader will know something new at each scene’s conclusion.
3. The flashpoint
In the third section, momentum builds still more. The reader should feel as if s/he is being pulled along by a current, so inexorable are the forces at work. That’s because we’re heading for the crisis, the flashpoint at which your narrative turns. This will occur approximately three-quarters through your narrative. It may happen with a bang or a whimper, but it should be a clear turning point for your plot—and for your protagonist.
Finally, your narrative will have a resolution. If you’ve ever read a book that seems rushed at the end, it’s because many authors are so relieved to have gotten to their climax, they rush through what comes after it. This is a mistake: Our human need for storytelling requires closure as much as it requires the story itself. A satisfying narrative is one where the reader is left feeling that, while the ending isn’t what s/he expected, it was inevitable.
"At its most basic, plot can be reduced to this simple equation . . ." —Lenard-Cook
Keep It Simple
At its most basic, plot can be reduced to this simple equation:
Someone wants something. Something or someone else stands in Someone’s way. Someone does or doesn’t get what Someone wants.
One last thing: Plot isn’t theme. A narrative’s theme is its over- or underlying idea (“War is hell.” “Love conquers all.”), and it’s best not to start with a theme in mind. Trust me: Your theme will arise from the story you tell.
If you’ve been struggling with a narrative that seems to lack forward movement, you might want to try applying some of the ideas above. Let me know what works for you. You can email me at [email protected]
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and is a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.