Struggling With Plots

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve long been aware of the need for a good plot—a good story is more important in some ways than good writing. I am convinced that one of the reasons books and movies with boilerplate plots do so well is exactly because they have boilerplate plots. They have a basic story that resonates with their readers or viewers over and over again.

I’ve always considered plot to be my weakest link in my writing skills. I can’t seem to get my stories off the ground. I know the basics, I’ve seen Aristotle’s Incline, I’ve taken apart books I love. I still can’t move my characters from point A to point Z.

Background Image: Hans Watson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In desperation, I’ve even tried lifting plots straight out of mythology. My NaNoWriMo story last year was a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. I figured if I lifted the plot, developed my characters, and got them started, the rest would come. I was wrong. Even when I was starting with a well-formed skeleton, I could not seem to construct a living story out of it.

After my NaNo debacle, I went to look at books on plot. One, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias caught my eye. I knew that the stories that resonated the most and attracted the widest audience all pulled from classic plot structures. Consider the similarities between “Star Wars” and the Harry Potter series, for example. Here, I hoped, was the “magic plot bullet” I was looking for.

In his first chapter, he talks about the problems with using the “plot as a skeleton” metaphor. Plot is diffusive, dynamic, not a static object like a skeleton. It isn’t just something to stick text onto. Plot is a process. Tobias describes plot as being a dynamic force (he compares it to electromagnetism) rather than a static structure. He then goes on to describe the different classic plots in terms of characterization and action. Some plot types have more action and less character development, others more character development than action. As I was reading, the whole thing reminded me of how energy is often described in science textbooks.

There are two basic types of energy: kinetic energy, the energy of motion, and potential energy, the energy something has because it could move if some force weren’t preventing it from doing so. If that preventative force is removed, the object starts moving, converting its potential energy to kinetic energy. For example, a book on a table doesn’t fall because the upward force from the table prevents it from doing so. Remove the table, and the book falls, gaining speed as it falls. Its potential energy converts into kinetic energy.

A new paradigm developed in my mind. I started to think of plot not as a skeleton-like structure, but as energy conversions between action and characterization. In a story, action is like kinetic energy, and characterization is like potential energy. It is the potential of the character—how the character reacts to forces acting or failing to act on him or her—that determines the action that follows.

Consider the plot of Hamlet. Hamlet has the potential to act on the news of his father’s murder shortly after he learns about it from his father’s ghost. However, he resists acting out of a sense of fairness that is a deep part of his character. He wants to be sure his uncle is truly guilty. As the forces that keep him from acting are slowly removed, the action of the story starts to pick up, just as a book will start slowly to fall to the floor when you release it. Once the process starts, the action in the play continues to its inevitable end, and the potential of character rushes Hamlet into the frantic action of the closing scenes.

As I thought about the force-energy paradigm of plot, I found more parallels. While there are only two basic types of energy, kinetic and potential, they are often found in standard combinations that are commonly called forms of energy. These include nuclear energy, chemical energy, and mechanical energy.

The “master plots” that Tobias refers to can be thought of as common combinations of characterization and action. They are comparable in some ways to the forms of energy. Each has specific combinations of character development and action. Each has “rules” that it relies on to convert its initial energy into the final climax of the story.

For example, the basic adventure plot is pretty much all action. The goal is the adventure. This type of plot is common in many children’s books, such as the Nancy Drew mystery series. Nancy Drew doesn’t change throughout the entire series of books. She doesn’t even age. Her character takes a back seat to the mystery she is solving. A quest plot, on the other hand, is similar in that it involves adventure, but also involves far more character development. The adventure is secondary to the growth of the person on the quest. The hobbit characters in The Lord of the Rings each change and grow as a result of the quest to destroy Sauron’s ring of power.

How does all this help me with developing a plot? What happens if I start to think of plot as something other than the basic outline of the action, if I think of it as the conversion between character and action, if I think of situations and character flaws as the forces that cause the conversions? Instead of a lifeless skeleton waiting for meat to be put on its bones so that it can be a lifeless body, I have a story with energy. I have a story where action follows from characterization, and character change follows from action in a natural way. I have a way of thinking that helps me figure out where I need to add a situational force to increase the characterization potential, or where I should increase the speed of the action. It also lets me think in terms of wasted energy—what things aren’t contributing to the conversions I want?

Does the new paradigm work? I don’t know yet. It’s still new, and I haven’t had the chance to apply it. Tell you what. Why don’t we both try it and see what happens?


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