In my last post I talked about how it’s character that makes each story unique, not plot, and ran over some of the history of human endeavor trying to codify story-forms and my personal creed of creating characters. However, characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They require a plot in which to exist, space in which to gain momentum and careen and bounce off the walls and other people.
The reality of publishing is that most modern commercial fiction – read as genre fiction – is plot driven. How do you write compelling plots?
A plot is only effective as its cast or dramatis personae, the protagonist(s), antagonist(s), and supporting characters. If a main character is flat or unrealized, then the plot will be sluggish. If I’m writing a horror novel and my audience has no engagement with my characters, then I can place the characters in conflict with the worst sort of monsters, or hazard them in incredibly nasty and fatal situations, and the plot still won’t be thrilling or frightening because I haven’t done my job in making the reader, if not empathize, then understand and become engaged with the character.
Character is the gas on which plot runs.
Of course you’ve got to have conflict.
That’s some basic stuff and I’m not going to dwell on it other than to say, yes, please, have some in your fiction. If you don’t understand this, you should probably not be writing. Social work, maybe, or mediation. Become marriage counselor, they work toward lessening conflict. But don’t be a writer. You don’t have enough conflict bile – the scientific term is dissensio sucus* – in your body for it.
So we’re all writers here, right? So, I’ll tell you the some of the problems I face regarding creating effective plots (hey, just because I’m published doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it just like you), as if we’re all cozy having wine and pillow fights and stuff like that and maybe some of it will resonate with you and some of it won’t. As always, your mileage may vary.
One of the most important things I try to get in my stories is an effective and appropriate PACING. The pacing of my story is, simply, the rate in which the story unfolds. Of course, my pacing will depend on what sort of novel I’m writing. An epic fantasy might have a long, stately progression, a crime novel might have a hectic, inexorable momentum, and a gothic horror story might have a long slow build toward an explosive end.
There’s how close together you place moments of tension in your plot, there’s the language you use to describe things, and there’s the way this information is delivered.
If you’ve ever studied poetry, you’ll know what the word enjambment means. If you haven’t, enjambment is when a thought doesn’t end on the rhyming or last word in the line (also known as end-stopped). A classic example of enjambment –
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
You can see in this famous bit of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland that he’s leading the reader to follow the thought to the next line rather than ending it. This can, when read or spoken aloud, gain the interest of the reader and give the work a momentum that staid end-stopped poetry lacks.
So, what does this have to do with plot?
You’ll notice in the best-paced novels that the author knows the perfect spot to end each chapter, drawing out tension. In thrillers, it will often be the moment before a point of resolution, so that the chapter’s terminus leaves the reader with an urge to flip the page and find out what happens next. It is baby version of the “cliffhanger” ending.
I tend to write really long chapters of five or six thousand words and in the editing process have to go back in, looking for moments of dramatic tension, and break the chapters up there. I’m trying to get myself to start thinking this way, instead of jury-rigging the process from the “post-production” side, but it might be that my brain is just wired to write long tracts.
ALWAYS BE REVEALING
The beginning novelist will often intuit how to do things in narrative. After the course of a few books, you’ll start to find that instead of fumbling about in the dark, you’ll have enough confidence to fumble around by iPhone light.
In my first novel, Southern Gods, I wrote the whole thing on intuition rather than planning, and it ended up working nicely. But now, as I write my eighth book, I have to try to do things deliberately in the narrative. I can’t trust to blind luck anymore.
After eight books in five years, here’s one of the plot biggies I’ve learned.
I can have a slow scene. I can be super-flowery descriptive. I can be terse. I can be graphic. I can be sweet and loving.
If I’m not revealing something about my characters, I’m not moving the story forward.
If a character lingers in a gallery, fixated on a painting (and doesn’t intend to steal said painting), the description of the painting or the character’s reaction to it needs to reveal something about the character. Otherwise, I try to skip to the interesting part where something is revealed about my character.
ACTION AND CONSEQUENCE
Another thing I’m learning with each book I write is that often, an action taken by a character will have consequences. These consequences will drive the narrative forward.
Think the iconic first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones takes the golden statue, replacing it with the sandbag. The sandbag lowers, the stones rumble, and then all hell breaks loose, sending Indy racing out of the sepulcher toward freedom and reward.
His choices spurred the narrative onward and allowed us to see how he acted in times of stress.
I don’t think about structure much when it comes to plot. There’s the screenwriter’s Three-Act Structure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure). There’s the Five-Act structure, which is truly just a more detailed Three-Act Structure. There’s the Shakespearean five-act play structure.
I doubt that thinking about my novels in this way is helped by breaking the story into chunks like this. As I formulate the story in my mind, and then outline it, I have to think of it as a continuous whole, a working machine, full of many parts, many points and scenes, all moving toward an end. Humans will see patterns in everything (it helps us feel like we have control over a situation) so that your book might naturally fall into three parts, corresponding to three acts. But holding that ideal in my mind’s eye and structure out the story before I begin? Or even as I write? No thank you. That’s not for me.
However, it might be for you. That’s the weird thing about being a writer. Everyone’s process is individual and you have to find out what works for you.
My patented process is the messy, sprawling, go-down-every-rabbit-hole method.
Sometimes, though, a structure will jump out at you, or work perfectly for your story. For example, mise en abyme – a story within a story. Frankenstein is a fine example of mise en abyme structure, it contains a story, within a story, within a story.
So, I give myself free reign to play.
THERE’S TENSION, THERE’S RELEASE
If I’ve plotted a story, and it’s chock full of action scenes stacked one on top of the other (I’ve done this), unless my intended audience is methamphetamine addicted speed-freaks, sometimes I need to give my characters – and audience – time to breathe. Points of rest within the story allow the reader the opportunity to get to know the character, to see what kind of person they are when they’re not fighting, running, having sex, committing murders, casing the joint, or on drunken rampages.
It also gives me, the author, to focus on things other than purely heart-stopping action. It’s in quiet transitory moments a single placed word can come to embody so much about a character, or two character’s relationship.
I need slow moments to make the faster, intense ones more meaningful by contrast.
THERE’S MORE TO PLOT THAN A SIMPLE RECITATION OF EVENTS
Consider The Graduate. The protagonist falls into a relationship with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, and then through the vagaries of fate, gets set up with her daughter. Eventually, Benjamin Braddock (the protagonist) decides that he should be with Elaine, the daughter, and races to save her from a forced marriage to Carl, arranged by Mrs. Robinson and her outraged and cuckolded husband.
Braddock storms the wedding ceremony and after a moment of confusion Elaine joins him, and they win their way to freedom, boarding a departing bus. The smiles of their elation fade away as the enormity of what they’ve done settles on them and they become stone-faced as the bus drives away.
Okay, I skipped some parts. But the point is, there’s simply what happened – boy meets woman, boy loves woman, boy loves woman’s daughter, boy loses woman’s daughter, boy gets woman’s daughter back – and there’s an emotional plot to the story. Meaning, despite what’s happening on screen, there’s a subtext, and the ending has an emotional veracity that underpins, and possibly subverts, the meanings of the events that have gone before.
I try to make sure that in my novels, each featured player, each main character and some of the minor ones, there’s an emotional arc, where they grow, or have their inability to grow, their stasis, brought into the light. It’s the difference between the old James Bond and the new one, played by Daniel Craig. The Connery Bond is unfazed and unchanged by events. He simply is, like an elemental force and all we have are a series of events, albeit very cool ones. But Craig’s Bond, he’s changed by events, he’s wounded, physically and emotionally, and so his character grows.
If my characters don’t have a proper emotional arc, I don’t feel like I’m doing my job. And the plot is stale.
But if you have realistic characters, fleshed characters, it’s hard to keep some sort of emotional catharsis from occurring. And that’s why I led off with focusing on character.So those are a few thoughts about plot beyond simply talking about structure and conflict. Hope you’ve gotten something out of them.
Please direct all complaints toward the management of this blog.
* Totally made that up.
John Hornor Jacobs’ first novel, Southern Gods, was published by Night Shade Books and shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award. His second novel, This Dark Earth, was published in J2012 by Simon & Schuster. His young adult series, The Incarcerado Trilogy comprised of The Twelve Fingered Boy, The Shibboleth, and The Conformity, is published by Lerner Books. His first fantasy series, The Incorruptibles will be published in Spring 2014 by Gollancz in the UK. John is the co-founder of Needle: A Magazine of Noir and was the active creative director until fall 2012. He has a quartet of horror stories, Fierce As The Grave, available through Amazon.com on the Kindle platform. He’s represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You can learn more about John Hornor Jacobs on his website, johnhornorjacobs.com, or follow his lively conversation on Twitter @johnhornor and Facebook www.facebook.com/John.Hornor