The Power of Plot
Things like Ideas, Characters, Attractive Power and Emotional Commitment usually take place in the scenes or chapters of a work, or build up cumulatively over the length of a story. But most stories need a framework upon which to hang these things. The interesting thing is that these frames normally come in a standard shape and do similar things. Even in an Irony, in which the very standardness of things can be subverted, an author can only go so far 'off the rails' without spoiling the story-power of the work itself.
Calling plots ‘frameworks’, though, suggests that they are static things and that the real importance or power of a tale rests elsewhere. This is not true: a good plot is made of energy itself. These questions should help you to see how you are dealing with plots.
1. Are you happy with the plot structure of your work?
That means that you are content specifically with the way that the story proceeds, its pace, its twists and turns, the revelations that occur on the way, the choices given to protagonist to engage the reader, and its overall conclusion.
2. Do you experience plot construction problems?
If you have any difficulties with any of the above, they can usually be broken down into those categories listed: the pace of the story may need adjusting using a precise mechanism used by master authors through the centuries; the twists and turns may need revitalising, and the way in which certain things are concealed and then revealed may need examining, using another specific mechanism, and so on.
Too often writers who struggle with plot problems do so because they fail to see that a plot is a combination of engineering elements which produce certain effects, including momentum, mystery, morality and meaning.
3. Are you concerned about the motion of the plot?
Motion, or momentum, is something common to all stories. It is what makes a story a story and not just a still image or scene. Putting a number of scenes together doesn’t automatically make a plot: they have to be joined together in specific ways so that a reader is moved forward through them towards your conclusion.
Sometimes this motion is too rapid and the reader feels disorientated; more commonly, though, the plot ‘sticks’ or bogs down and loses its energy. As mentioned, there is a very particular device used by successful authors to monitor plot pace and to adjust it where needed. How Stories Really Work explains in detail what this is, and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published! trains authors in its use.
4. Do you often make significant changes to the plot?
If you find yourself constantly tampering with the plot, this may not be a bad thing. It indicates that you are aware at least that something needs adjusting.
Most would-be writers start their stories ‘from their heads’ and just continue to write one scene after another without much thought as to where the tale as a whole is heading. Most stories of this kind lose their integrity and fade away fairly rapidly, never to be completed. Grounded in Ideas, and with well-crafted Characters and everything else described elsewhere, a plot has more chance of holding together and assisting a writer towards completion, but there are still four specific devices or tools used in successful stories to help both move plots along and make them work.
5. Is the plot exciting and effective in holding the reader’s attention?
These four devices, well employed, are what make any tale exciting and effective. They generate, as mentioned above, momentum, mystery, morality and meaning. Without them, a story can dissolve into a mere mishmash of scenes with no coherence or direction.
6. Could the plot be speeded up?
As a story leans towards a set of still images, like a photograph album, so it loses pace. Using the mechanism which creates momentum, a plot can be moved along more rapidly without risking losing its shape or the reader.
7. Have you ever 'walked through' the plot to make sure it makes sense?
‘Walking through’ a story to see if it makes sense is not an easy thing to do. After all, you wrote it: it made sense to you while you were writing it, and you would naturally hope it would make sense to others. But ‘pace’ is often a problem: readers can complain if a story is ‘slow’, or ‘too fast’. Action scenes are particularly prone to the ‘too fast’ complaint: the author has failed to track with the reader and an action sequence comes across as clumsy or muddled.
Only by becoming familiar with the momentum mechanism can a writer learn to ‘change gears’ at key moments and not lose readers.
8. Are you confident enough in your style?
‘Style’ comes up later as its own category under Quality, but is worth mentioning here because many would-be writers focus on developing a writing style early on and believe that this alone will get them through the story. Readers, they hope, will fall in love with the way in which a piece is written, and not be bothered by concerns about pace or other factors.
What tends to happen in reality is that style burdens scenes with excess wordage or ‘word-trickery’. Certainly, readers can be entertained by stylistic flourishes and many great authors have a fantastic command of the English language which entrances and enthrals readers (as we will learn more about in the section ‘Quality’ elsewhere on this blog), but most successful authors match their mastery of style with a superb understanding of the machinery which moves stories forward.
9. Is your plot disorganised?
An apparently ‘disorganised’ plot is a good thing in an Irony, which overall often gives the impression that Order itself is subverted - but this has to be carefully managed to avoid risking undermining itself. In Epics, Comedies or Tragedies, plots generally follow a strict pattern and therefore need a certain amount of organisation.
10. Do you have enough characters to produce a good story?
Characters strictly belong to their own category, but enough characters - of the right kind and in the right place - can almost make a plot leap into position on their own. As outlined earlier, stories can be character-driven or plot-driven, or a mixture of both. You can read much more about this in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published! For now, keep in mind that the way your main character behaves as he or she does ideally needs to link directly to the plot.