The Things Called ‘Plots’, What They Are and How They Are Actually Made
You have a few images come into your head.
With them, are some emotions or passions, connected to the images in ways that you don’t quite understand.
The combination is intoxicating, powerful enough to move you into a writing chair (sometimes) and to get you to try to capture what’s going on in your head as much as you can.
After a relatively short while, even if you feel confident enough with the language to get something down on the page or screen, you run out of energy: the original images have either vanished, or been morphed by your words into something else. If you’re lucky, this process has produced a fairly lengthy piece of writing. Perhaps you have developed momentum which means that you feel you can now complete a first draft of a novel; perhaps the original images and their associated feelings return to you from time to time, enough for you to sustain more and more pages of writing.
What you have managed to get out of your head and to paint in the form of words, though, more often than not is a disappointment on several levels:
• it probably doesn’t have quite the emotional intensity, subtlety or colour that it had when it was still ‘inside’ and
• more likely than not it is a jumble of events: characters and places and occurrences strung together along the lines of ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ and so on.
• what you have resembles very closely another story - it all seems painfully derivative.
This is the experience of over 90% of people who like to call themselves writers.
One of the results is that by far the majority of stories ever begun never get finished. Not only that, they never get anywhere near finished: more probably, once the original images and feelings from inside the mind are to some extent laid out, the story loses its direction and power and fades out or becomes confused.
What is happening here?
Let’s be clear: all those people calling themselves writers and going through this frustrating process are actually writers. They have felt the feelings, they have come up with the words, they have put in the time. Where are they going wrong, then?
It boils down to a lack of education. Not a formal, school-based education, but a lack of training in the art and craft of writing itself. And I don’t mean a conventional writing course, though some of them are good: I mean finding out what makes stories really work.
There’s more to writing a successful story than making yourself sit in a chair for several hours each week and forcing out a draft manuscript. There’s more to it than dreaming up words which effectively capture the images and ideas in your head. There’s a step, often missed, which needs to be done on top of and alongside this things: you have to learn how to do it using the things which operate out of sight in fiction. You have to go ‘behind the scenes’.
The best teachers are the master authors, the ones whose works have stood the test of time, the best-sellers, the famous names, the ones whose screenplays are in demand, whose books people queue up to buy. These people, whether they were formally trained or not, clearly know what they are doing. They have put in the hours, fashioned the words and done something else: they have put everything together in a way that communicates powerfully to readers using things that we don’t directly perceive when reading.
What is a plot?
It is an attention-holding device.
The purpose of a plot is to grip the attention of a reader until the very end of the story.
If you think of attention as water, then the function of a plot is to channel that water from one place to another, preferably without spilling a drop. Like physical channels, plots are made by digging one hole after another, in a line. Attention, like water, naturally falls into holes. It’s not enough, therefore, to capture images from one’s mind in words and set them down on a page - you have to put them together in a sequence which creates a channel.
By all means, put in the time in the chair netting those pictures and concepts that fired up from somewhere in your mind using the best and most appropriate words that you can. But once you have all those things tied down, dig some holes. Where do you want your water to flow? How are you going to get it there? How can you prevent spillage?
Become an engineer: build a plot which manipulates attention one scene at a time until the reader gets to exactly where you want him or her to be.
Instructions on exactly how to do this - what a ‘hole’ is in story terms, how deep to dig each one and what tools you can use to do so - are in my book How Stories Really Work.