Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Fiction: Session 8 - Plot

Plot : Asking The Question

Without a plot, you won’t have a book. With a bad plot or a boring plot you’ll have a book that no one will finish but your mother. And, she might lie to you about finishing it. So let’s talk about the essentials of a good plot. What are they?

Every plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That sounds like the easy part, but it’s not. Many writers begin writing about their character’s life, thinking that they have a plot and that they are telling a story. Unless there is a compelling underlying question to weave the events in a person’s life into a story (with a beginning, a middle, and an end), you are merely making episodic entries into your character’s diary. Some of those episodes might be interesting, but they won’t necessarily make a story.

Essentially a good plot will lead your character from the event that creates some sort of conflict or question in his/her life to the resolution of that conflict or question. That’s the key to it. Everything in between is the plot.

Think about the best novels you’ve read. You don’t want to put them down. Why? Because the writer has asked a question or some questions that haven’t been answered. The questions are compelling and the reader feels a need to find out if they'll be answered. Throughout the book the writer answers just enough of the quetions to satisfy the reader, and then, WHAM, the writer throws more and more roadblocks and questions in the way of the resolution. As a result, the characters have more trouble solving the problem(s) rather than less. The tension builds and continues to build until the reader concludes there’s no way out of the snarl of it all. Finally, the writer resolves the issues (the climax) and the reader sighs and says, “What a great book!”

We all want the reader to say that about the books we write. So, how do we get to that point? In developing a plot, you must find a question you want to ask or a conflict that the character will face at the beginning of the story. Bring that question to the attention of your readers early and hook them to want to answer that question by finding out what happens. For example, in murder mysteries, there’s usually a dead body in the first few pages. That’s it. Put a body on one of the first few pages and immediately that body creates questions in your readers’ minds. How did that body get there? Did someone murder that person? If so, who did it and why should I care? And why should the main character care? Does the main character have to solve the mystery? If so, how important is it for the main character to solve the mystery?

You see where I’m going with this. Your plot whether it’s a mystery, an adventure story, a love story, or a saga, must ask a question or questions in the beginning. That gets the ball rolling – or the pages turning in this case.

The middle still must compel the reader to turn pages, also. So, while giving the clues, the writer creates more questions.

The important thing is to make sure you don’t answer your big question too soon. Your plot is over once you do. For example, if Sally discovers a body and John Doe walks into the room and says, “I killed Sam,” your question is answered and your story is over.

Your question needs to be big enough to support the full plot. Let's say there’s a body draped over the piano. It’s Sam, John Doe’s partner. John Doe isn’t there but his car keys are on the floor beside the body. When asked, John Doe tells the police that he was home alone. He has no alibi. Instead of just answering the questions of the police, he begins twisting and turning and answering with increasingly vague answers. So, now you have the question: Can John Doe prove he didn’t kill Sam or find who did before the police arrest him? There you go… that question is probably big enough to support your plot.


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