Article: Hold on to Your Plot Part 3

And now, the finale for the article on how to hold on to your plot!

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Complex Structures
The credibility of most plots depends on their logic and consistency, but whether your readers will find them gripping will also depend on the elements of unpredictability, surprise and tension. What you need is a strategy for revealing or withholding details of the plot – in other words, a structure.

One persistent model – an epic poem which begins with birth of a hero and ends with his death – goes back to storytelling in its earliest forms, and features three distinct phases: the beginning, the middle and the end. In the past, these have followed a strict chronology, but over the last couple of centuries storytelling itself has been affected by the progress of modernity. This has largely been in the form of urbanization, mass communication, and our subsequent separation from ‘natural’ chronological and seasonal cycles.

Take any news story. Usually, you’ll hear the climax of the story repeated several times from a bewildering variety of viewpoints. Later on, we’ll receive various kinds of information about the origins of the story and its background. More often than not, we’ll be teased over a matter of days, weeks and even months about the final resolution, if there is one. In these circumstances, the neatness and predictability of traditional storytelling becomes literally incredible.

As a result, contemporary fiction manipulates structure in order to create tension by concealing elements of the plot, or alternatively, reveals highlights in order to explore the processes by which the characters arrive at that point. Contemporary structures now feature delay, fragmentation of the narrative, and different ways of seeing the same event. Any one of these strategies offers different opportunities for developing the characters or for exploring various aspects of the background and setting of the story. Meanwhile, the basic plot remains exactly the same.

A credible plot needs to be based on ideas and themes which lie under the surface and determine its developments alongside the physical actions explained in the narrative. Sometimes, these ideas emerge as the plot progresses but usually it’s best to work out beforehand what your themes and subtexts might be. You’ll then have ideas in the back of your head which will inform how your plot is constructed. If you imagine, for instance, that the story of Oedipus is actually about sexual deviance, the plot which emerges will feature very different events to one in which the subtext is about ambition.

Of course, new themes can emerge at a later stage out of the nature and the conduct of the characters, out of the shape of events, or out of the relationship of both to the setting.

Different Form, Different Plot
Different forms demand different kinds of plotting. A short story is, by definition, short so the plot of a novel would be much too crowded to suit a typical short story. This has consequences for the construction of a short story plot. Some of the best short story writers, like Guy de Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, developed a genre in which the plots led to a twist or surprise at the end. For other short stories, the twist is not a necessary element. Ernest Hemingway often constructed his stories to capture a specific moment in the life of a character, a place or a period. The plot of these stories is a moment from a longer narrative and even though its part in the story may be invisible, the author must know the exact shape of the entire structure.

By comparison, screenplay plots tend to be more formulaic, typically conceived in three acts with both a main plot and one or more subplots. The separate plots develop simultaneously but separately, coming together when the subplot is resolved at the end of the second act. The plot is, typically, driven by the major protagonist’s arc of development, which peaks at specific points in the narrative. In this sense, screenplay plots have a strict, almost mathematical, structure.

To a large extent, making sure that your world remains logical, credible and coherent is a matter of common sense. A deep sea diver is unlikely to crop up in court defending a murderer, for instance, unless you can present good and believable reasons why such a thing would happen.

In much the same way, credibility depends on the consistency of the geography and timing of events. This does not stop you from creating impossible and contradictory circumstances, like having a time traveller from Ancient Rome appear in London today. Fantasy plots, however, should also be absolutely correct in its detail or, alternatively, create a world whose details are convincing.

It’s tempting to believe that retaining a reader’s attention can be achieved by piling incidents on in rapid succession, but it is actually a more complex matter. Think of a plot being like a piece of music, a rhythm in which there is a flow of incidents timed to take place at certain intervals, as well as spaces for reflection or development. Events may build to a climax and then fade away or climb steadily to a peak. Pacing the revelations of the plot in this way will help to holder your reader’s attention, and timing them to coincide with the development of characters will keep the pages turning.

Twists in the Tale
Usually, it’s a good idea to keep the plot as simple and straightforward as possible. But if you do want to spice things up, changes of direction and twists in the plot should not be conceived in isolation. Instead, they should emerge logically from the characters’ response to events around them. These reactions can also add to the depth and complexity of the plot, avoiding the need to create additional sequences of incident.

In any case, if a plot features a multitude of moving parts, it is best to decide on this beforehand. Bolting on a variety of twists to the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, for instance, might make the story seem fussy and over-complicated. A twist which simply reverses the logic of the story also requires extensive justification which might well hold up the flow of narrative and seem equally contrived.

If, however, your plot sees Red Riding Hood and the Wolf plot the murder of her grandmother together, a new logic has been created and demands more complex development to establish why they are collaborating and acting against type.

It is notoriously difficult to recognise when elements of the plot are not working alongside the rest but there are a number of ways to test them out. Do the characters respond naturally to the developments of the plot, or are you obliged to embark on lengthy justifications for their actions? Do the developments reveal information essential to the story or are they largely decorative? Answering questions like these will help identify any potential kinks in your plot structure.

One way of dealing with problems of this kind is simply to drop the elements which appear to be complicating the story, and start again from that point. Most, if not all, fiction benefits from editing. The author is actually the best person to do this, but deciding to abandon pages you’ve sweated over can be difficult. It is useful to survey the work at fixed points, perhaps halfway through and again at the end and reading carefully will often reveal superfluous pages of description or dialogue. It’s also useful to cultivate a suspicion of length – long sentences and long paragraphs should go, unless they are intentional and carefully structured.

But unless your plot maintains its logic and consistency, you risk losing your readers before your amazing final revelations. A plot which appears to be stretched thin in order to provide a convenient ending might leave readers feeling that they’ve been cheated, so make sure you deliver on your promises.

In a nutshell, a great plot will be one which appears to develop inevitably, features credible events, and resolves itself in a way which appears to be a natural consequence of the chain of events you’ve inflicted upon your characters.

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