Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Notes on Plot (pt 1)

I've spent a good bit of time over the years thinking about plot and I thought some of those ideas might be of interest to y'all. I'll start with a definition of terms today and then discuss four models of plot construction in the next part. As always comments and questions from readers are not only welcomed they're encouraged.

The basic equation of plot as I see it goes a bit like this:

Plot = How Conflict interacts with Cost to achieve resolution
Conflict = The difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be
Cost = Price of resolving conflict

That said, there two basic types of plots. Internally driven and externally driven.

Much of classic fantasy and most of classic science fiction revolves around externally driven plot. Sauron seeks the one ring. Either Frodo and co destroy it or are destroyed. No internal transformation has to take place in any of the characters. They have a goal. The trilogy is built around achieving that goal. In fantasy the external plot is usually driven by a BBE, or big bad evil. Sauron. The White Witch. Etc.

Most lit fic and an ever growing portion of F&SF is internally driven. Internally driven stories usually revolve around the problems of the character though many have explicit external villains as well. The protagonist is broken in some fundamental way, either some time before the action of the book begins, or very soon thereafter. They then go on a journey which either fixes them, or transforms them into someone who no longer needs to be fixed.

I personally try to write a story with both external and internal plot drivers, as I feel that a fusion of the two makes for a stronger story.

Thoughts? Comments? What am I missing here?

9 comments:

Tim Susman said...

Personally, I always view the plot as separate from the character journey. As you say, in SF/fantasy, there's usually an external conflict motivating the plot. It's rare that the internal conflict contributes to that motivation--that would be something like Macbeth, where his character flaw sets in motion the whole sequence of events (unless I'm recalling the play wrongly).

I like to have my internal and external conflicts complement each other, but usually the external comes about without any action on the part of the hero, who is thrust into some situation that enables him or her to address the internal conflict as well. But I track them when writing as separate entities, for example: Plot: in chapter 5, the villains ambush our heroes and kill Friendly Joe. Character: Hero is responsible for Joe's death--denies it, but his friendship with Joe plants seeds of guilt here.

The plot is, for me, sometimes the hardest thing to get right going through the book. I'm fascinated by internal conflict, and so could happily write chapters where nothing happens except people raising their voices slightly at each other. This, it has been pointed out, is not exactly page-turning reading. So while I might know what the character's journey is, and what the event that triggers the plot is, it's often hard to put together the pieces of plot in a way that keeps the reader wondering "what comes next?" (as opposed to flipping forward to find out).

Kelly Swails said...

I agree with Tim in that I strive to make my internal and external conflicts complement each other (and I like it when I read books like that) but I disagree with the statement "I...view the plot as sparate from the character journey." I feel the two are intertwined. If one is broken the other won't be strong enough to stand on its own. (Or, I should say, one can stand on its own; there are plenty of books with lots of plot but no character and vice-versa. But a story is stronger with both.)

I suppose one could view it as an age-old "chicken/egg" question: does plot form the characters or do characters drive the plot?

Kelly McCullough said...

Tim, interesting take. It sounds like mostly a different way of emphasizing the same basic idea of a double driver line. Kelly X appears to fall someplace between in terms of how she she thinks about it (please correct me if I'm wrong).

Another related way to look at it would be that the plot is what forces action and the character arc is what determines the exact route of travel.

I personally still tend to think of them both as plot because I'm a world driven writer and the route is very carefully planned from the get-go because that's a hugely important part of the movement (or plot).

I have to argue with the idea that internally motivated plot is all that rare, at least with more modern F&SF. I'd say a healthy percentage of what's written in the field right now is mainly about the character transformation with the external plot drivers tagged on more to give the appearance of motivation than to drive the story.

i.e. the the writer is really mostly interested in how those things interact with the characters quirks to create story and not so much in how those thing play out on the world and all the people in it who aren't a direct part of the story.

MariAdkins said...

I'd say a healthy percentage of what's written in the field right now is mainly about the character transformation with the external plot drivers tagged on more to give the appearance of motivation than to drive the story.

i.e. the the writer is really mostly interested in how those things interact with the characters quirks to create story and not so much in how those thing play out on the world and all the people in it who aren't a direct part of the story.


That's how I write, in a nutshell. It drives my husband nuts, even though he's one of my biggest fans. He prefers a purely plot-driven story.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh, and just for the record, I think the the writer is really mostly interested in how those things interact with the characters quirks model has produced some great stories. It's just not how I work.

Bill Henry said...

"Plot is character and character plot," as Fitzgerald wrote.

Tim Susman said...

i.e. the the writer is really mostly interested in how those things interact with the characters quirks to create story and not so much in how those thing play out on the world and all the people in it who aren't a direct part of the story.

That's how I write, in a nutshell. It drives my husband nuts, even though he's one of my biggest fans. He prefers a purely plot-driven story.


That's how I tend to write, too, which is why I have so much trouble with plot going on while my characters are trying to develop. :) I was thinking more of classic fantasy when I said that more fantasy is plot-driven, things like the Dragonlance books, the Thomas Covenant series (which I would argue are plot driven because the character does not drive the story so much as get dragged through it), Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett (the one Discworld I read, anyway), and so on. There is probably a whole segment of contemporary fantasy that I'm not reading that is more character-driven, so I'll back off on that claim.

Nice to know I'm not that alone, anyway. :)

MariAdkins said...

Nice to know I'm not that alone, anyway. :)

Me too! :D

Kelly McCullough said...

Tim,

No need to back off, I firmly agree that much of the older work and much of the high fantasy stuff is primarily plot driven. I just think that more and more that's less and less the case. Also, I think some percentage of the stuff that's being written now to look as though it's plot driven really isn't--if that makes a lick of sense.