This Thing Called Plot


The plot thickens.

“That movie had no plot!”
“This book has the greatest plot!”

You’ve undoubtedly heard or expressed similar words of frustration or praise, but what is this thing we call “plot” and what makes one story great and another make you wish you could get back your wasted time?

Generally, we think of plot as the actions in a story that take us from point A (the beginning) to point B (the end).  But surely there must be more to it than that.  You could write a story about a bus trip from one town to another; the trip goes without a hitch, the bus doesn’t stop or breakdown, no one talks to anyone, no one gets sick, or has gas, spills a drink, or makes annoying sounds, and since it’s dark outside there is no scenery to keep your narrator and/or protagonist from falling asleep (or your audience for that matter).  You have now gone from point A to point B, but if nothing interesting happened along the way, would you still call it a plot?  Would you even call it a story?  Of course not.  The lack of anything interesting or engaging has stripped your story of anything resembling a plot and it has become a flat, boring line.  It’s so flat in fact that it’s invisible to all but theoretical mathmeticians.  In the story scenario described, there is no plot.  There are no obstacles to overcome, no interesting characters or conversations to listen in on, there are no interesting thoughts being relayed.  We’re not even interested in the protagonist.  We are not engaged.

So, for there to be a viable plot, we need to be engaged.  Something interesting has to happen, if not outside the protagonist, then inside.  Something has to be said that makes us care what happens to the protagonist, or the other characters, or even the bus.  We must care, and care about what happens next.  But it is still not enough for the audience to simply care what happens next, something must actually happen (again, if not outside then inside).  If the writer can somehow get us emotionally involved with the characters, but still nothing happens to them (nothing changes) on their trip from A to B, who cares?  It’s not really a story.  At most, it’s a character sketch.  Nothing more than a snapshot.  If the occurrences on our bus aren’t interesting to the audience then your back to flatsville…and you’re alone on the side of the road with a broke-down story.  The item that’s missing is a little thing called “conflict”.

Conflict happens when things don’t go according to plan – but not just anybody’s plan.  The plan the audience should care about the fulfillment of is the protagonist’s plan.  Generally this plan centers on some kind of imbalance in the protagonist’s world.  It could be that he was born into a world where things have always been wrong or perhaps things were once good, but have recently become detrimental to the protagonist’s way of life and he must set out to find the cure for his ailing world, or at least find an answer to why things are the way they are.  On the other hand, the protagonist might only be interested in going from town A to town B (he’s in town A but needs to be in town B), but the problems that arise to get in his way of accomplishing this are the conflicts that will fuel your plot.  It could be that the bus breaks down, or he gets beat up in the bathroom and misses the bus he had planned to ride.  Perhaps he whitnesses a crime and gets off the bus to stop it, or sees someone who hurt him in the past.  Will he be get back on the bus?  Will he die?  Basically anything that makes it difficult for him to accomplish the original goal is good for creating conflict, and concern in your audience.  Now, if this is a “character driven” story, the things that happen to your protagonist will have the largest affects on him internally.  On the outside, he might arrive seemingly unchanged, but on the inside, he’s undergone change, he’s altered his attitude about something important to him.  Perhaps he only intended to go from one town to the next to accomplish some simple task or mission, but by the time he’s arrived, he’s got a different attitude about that task or maybe even about life.  It doesn’t really matter if your protagonist is able to complete the task he’s set out to accomplish, the story has been about what happened to him on the way there (the journey).  He could even turn around and get back on the bus and go home without doing anything.  Believe it or not, sometimes a simple bus ride can change your life.

An important element of the plot equation is escalation.  Without discussing three-act structure or any other theory of story telling we can agree that the best stories build suspense (and audience interest) by intensifying the conflicts until there is a “climax” where everything breaks lose and the protagonist must fit the broken pieces into some semblance of an answer to the question that originally set him out on his journey (unless he’s dead, in which case the narrator must help us figure out what it was all about and whether it was worth it).  This section is known as the denouement, and if you’ve done right by your plot up to this point it should pretty much take care of itself.  In order for the conflicts to escalate, there must be something at stake for the protagonist and the stakes should also escalate as the story progresses, each passing conflict increasing in intensity and pressure on the protagonist.  If you are familiar with refining metal, then you know that the smith must put the metal under intense heat in order to refine it.  It is the same with protagonists in successful story telling.  They must undo go some change in position or mind (hopefully both) when exposed to the heat of conflict, being refined (or better defined) in some way. Only then will they truly fulfil their purpose to the plot.

Lastly, there needs to be a point to all this – a point to your story, otherwise it’s just words.  Your audience has sat through your story, now they need their reward.  Make sure there is one.  When you’re planning your story, make sure your plot is one that will lead the audience to where you want them to be at the end.  If all you’re doing is traveling from point A to point B, then your story really has no point.  In story telling, it’s the journey that matters.  It’s the journey that will be remembered. And it’s the journey that should leave the audience thinking or feeling something (hopefully something new).

In conclusion, for a story to be viable the plot needs to:

  • engage the audience (we should care about the characters)
  • have something noteworthy happen (and keep happening – even if it’s internal)
  • make the audience care about what happens next (each conflict should further plot)
  • have plenty of conflict (the more, the better)
  • be meaningful to the protagonist (he must have a goal and something at stake)
  • have stakes that escalate (turn up the heat on your protagonist)
  • have a point (why was this story worth telling/reading)

Please leave a comment and discuss you own thoughts on plot.  I look forward to reading and/or responding to them.

OW Original