We’re a few days late for February’s Getting Unstuck, but let’s blame it on the short month. In this post, assistant editor Jen Dupree suggests reimagining the way we conceive of plot, and offers a few resources for thinking of plot as a noun and not a verb!
When I started graduate school, I thought of plot as a verb: to determine ahead of time how the story would go. I thought of outlines and Roman numerals or rows of notecards pinned on a wall and I broke out in hives. I know there are people for whom that kind of planning is comforting, but for me it takes all the pleasure out of writing. So, for a long time, I eschewed all talk of plot, and that meant even talk of plot as a noun, which is to say I had stories in which nothing happened. For a long time, I held fast to the idea that a story could be just beautiful words and ideas strung together. And you know what? I didn’t get any stories published that way.
Plot as a noun refers to the engine that propels a story. It’s what’s at stake in the story. It’s what makes all those lovely words interesting to the reader.
In this episode of W/MFA, Silas House talks of how he thinks of the engine that drives his stories. “I get this little fingernail of a plot [but] the plot will only build itself,” he says, “if I create the character. So, plot can come from character. It can come from a confluence of ideas—a kidnapping, a flood, a TV preacher. Continuing to ask why—why is the father kidnapping his son? Well, maybe he changed the way he believed. How so?”
Essentially, House is suggesting he develops plot by following a line of questioning, of interrogating the motives and circumstances of his characters. He’s pointing out that plot cannot happen on its own—it is not just a good idea, but rather a thing that happens as the writer gets to know the characters, as they make one decision that leads to one outcome and then another decision and so on. And those characters are influenced by the world they live in—if they’re rich or poor or white or Black or Chinese or homophobic or dying of cancer or in love with their neighbor. I’m constantly interrogating my own work as well as the work that’s submitted to TMR with the question “Who wants what?” If that can’t be answered, there’s no plot.
Another way to think of plot is as trouble you create for your characters. In this episode of First Draft, Carlos Allende says, “[G]oals, challenges, and rules are the three main elements of engagement. And then I would say we don’t accept goals at random, we are not going to follow a character just because they have a goal. If I tell you that this story is about a rich man that wants to become richer, he is going to work hard, and smile to his customers and be always on time, that’s going to be a very, very boring story…what we need is some distress in there because compassion, it’s a very strong force that impels us to pay attention and to care about the other…So, to make your story compelling, what I advise my students is always, always, always make the need or the stress of your main character pretty evident.”
Allende’s approach to plot, like House’s, is based on character and circumstance. He’s looking at the circumstances his characters are in and seeing if he can create more trouble for them. By shaking up the world of his characters, he’s creating plot. This adds another layer to my earlier question: “Who wants what and what are they willing to do to get it?”
Not all plots are created equally. In this episode of Write-Minded, co-hosts Grant Faulkner and Brooke Warner talk about the different kinds of plot. There’s the propulsive plot (think Stephen King) versus the more subtle plot (think Rachel Cusk), but no matter where the story falls on the spectrum, there must be a balance of action and reflection. Things happen—whether they are world-ending, car-explosion things or they are internal-crisis things. No matter the approach, Grant says that “[t]here has to be suspense, there has to be narrative tension.” That tension can be circumstance-based (a car accident) or character-based (a breakup), but it has to be both external (what the protagonist sees and smells and tastes, etc.) and internal (how the protagonist feels about what’s happening).
If all of this talk about plot leaves you wondering if your story has enough plot or any plot at all, take Grant’s advice and re-read your favorite short story of all time to pick out the plot points. Take whatever story speaks to you and the aesthetic you dream of capturing and go scene by scene and jot down what happens. It can help to also note where the tension is. When you’re done, you should be able to see a change, even if it’s just a tiny shift, in the character from the beginning of the story to the end.
I do this with my own writing once I’m a few drafts in. Once I have my characters and a few scenes I feel good about, I jot down what’s happening in list form. By doing that, I can usually get a sense of what scenes I still need to get my character from point A to point B.
For even more concrete advice on plot, check out this episode of The Creative Writer’s Toolkit in which Andrew Chamberlain presents three elements of plot: plot must have shape, must have an engine, and must avoid cliches. In terms of shape, he suggests you should be able to sum up your story in just a few words. Doing so will help you figure out what’s missing or what’s weak in your plot, he says.
If plotting as a verb works for you, by all means go for it. But if you like to be surprised, as I do, by the work as it unfolds, that’s fine, too. In the end, though, there must be plot-as-a-noun holding all those perfect sentences together.
by Jen Dupree