Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Plot is a Verb

I forget where I first saw the phrase "Plot is a Verb," but the advice I was given was to print this out on a largish sign and hang it over my writing desk. While I haven't actually done that, the spirit of that advice is quite good. Too often we think of plot as a static structure for our stories. In reality, the plot should be always in motion, driving the events of the story along. If conflict is the current of a story, then plot is the river itself. I know I have a tendency sometimes to let my characters sit and talk for a scene. While you need this sometimes, particularly in longer fiction, it's dangerous to try to do too much of this. If you have consciously decided that your reader needs a breather to absorb all the material she's read so far, fine. As long as it's under conscious control, I don't think these pauses are a problem. The difficulty comes in when you, the author, have something you need to explain and so you have your characters sit and talk about it.

Maass defines five elements to a breakout plot, but I have seen virtually the same elements listed by many authors. They are:

  • A sympathetic character: We've discussed this quite a bit. I think creating such a character is one of the single most important parts of a successful story.
  • Conflict: Again, as we've discussed, conflict drives (or should drive) everything else that happens in your story.
  • Complications: This is something we haven't talked much about, though I've alluded to it a few times. A good plot has multiple layers that are all tied together (having independent subplots unrelated to the main plot doesn't work very well). Many of these subplot layers will serve to frustrate the protagonist, further increasing the conflict in the story.
  • Climax: Ultimately, something needs ot happen in the story. The protagonist must face a fundamental choice, the do-or-die point. This was my real complaint with The Aviator -- I challenge you to find a climax in that movie.
  • Resolution: What was the outcome of the climax? How has the character changed as a result?

High stakes, layered and intertwined plots, and complex and sympathetic characters are the main ingredients to any good story. Maass isn't telling us anything new here; many writers have said the same thing in many different ways. The fact that it isn't new, doesn't make it any less important, particularly for developing writers!

Incidentally, I picked up a copy of Maass' 1996 book on becoming a career novelist. The information in this book is a bit dated, but the insight is still valuable. Most of the value of this book will be apparent when you've finished your first novel, and you are just getting ready to shop around for an agent or a publisher. There are a number of career mistakes you will want to avoid from that point. For example, did you know that you don't want too high of an advance? The reason is that high advances causes the publisher to overprint, which can result in lots of returns. It doesn't matter how many books you sell, it's what percentage that are returned that publishers look at, and a poor sell-through can kill your career forever. Until you've got that first manuscript ready to go, however, the book is interesting, but not immediately helpful. It's worth having around, but don't worry about it until you're ready to publish.

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