PLOTS and PLOTTING
There is nothing intrinsically complicated about plots. A plot is the chain of cause and effect that advances the story. Think of it as an assembly line on which to build your story, or as a skeleton on which you add flesh and muscles.
The plot has been around for a long time and has been used by countless authors, but the way you tell your story is your own. A sub-plot is a second story lying behind the main one and interacting with it. A short novel, 50,000 words, doesn’t have room for a subplot.
Sometimes an event sparks the idea of a novel and the author then builds up the characters to act in the event. Or a person’s life inspires a writer to create characters and give them an event to act in.
When you embark on a journey, you have a destination in mind and know how to get there. The same holds true for writing a novel. Some authors begin a novel and write as inspiration strikes. A few are successful, though their novels do not stand close scrutiny. They rely on the readers being generous and just wanting to get the story read. Reviewers are not so kind. It can be the death toll for a writer’s career. On the other hand, a writer that prepares and plans her/his novel’s journey will get good reviews. This does not guarantee the work will be a bestseller and a commercial success.
Having a skeleton still leaves room for improvisation, but the author will know where to put that great scene that has just come to her/his mind so that it doesn’t clash with the rest of the novel.
The actual number of plots is relatively small, though experts are still disputing the numbers.
The Quest plot
When a person looks for a person, a place, a thing.
The variations are endless from the woman who looks for the baby she gave up for adoption (and regrets it) to the son or daughter who looks for his/her father’s murdered, embezzler, or best friend to help the ailing man, and many more.
The characteristic of a quest plot is that it moves around a lot. The searching protagonists are always following leads. An important element to advance the quest plot is that the characters gain knowledge along the way. Knowledge that will cause some transformation. There is a strong psychological element to the plot.
A novel based on this plot should start with the incident that motivates the search. It has to be clear for the reader. That search may end successfully or not. In the latter case the reader needs to know why and the reason must be satisfactory even if it is dramatic.
When a person is thrown into various actions.
In many respects the adventure plot is similar to the quest plot with the exception that whereas the quest plot deals with a search, the adventure plot focuses on the action alone. Historical novels tend to rely heavily on action with scenarios such as wars and other calamities. Adventure may not transform a character but maybe his/her outlook on life might take a new dimension, such as a protagonist who volunteers at an earthquake site.
When a person is confronted with a mystery.
The reader is invited to solve a problem, a mystery, an intrigue, a crime. The plot itself is physical because it focuses on events and actions that are not exactly what they appear to be. The author gives clues that point to more than one solution. The core of the mystery is a clue that was there right at the beginning, but not too obvious.
The novel should also contain tension arising from what happened as opposed to what seems to have happened. By the end of the novel, the mystery has been solved and everything tied up. This is when an outline with almost every scene will be noted to make sure that nothing is given too early – depriving the reader of the excitement of solving the riddle herself/himself – nor too late, like an afterthought.
A person finds an unexpected thing, item, place.
Somewhat similar to the riddle in that it involved uncovering something previously unknown to the protagonists.
The essential element if the discovery plot is an effect of surprise. A surprise that deeply affects the protagonists. The variations are endless, from the grownup who discovers he/she was adopted to falling in love for the first time. The discovery plot is ageless. It works just as well for a novel set in medieval times as it does for a novel set in modern day America or Europe.
The author must remember that the discovery is more about the protagonist than the discovery itself. It is more a search for understanding human nature. The discovery begin to change the protagonist and forces her/he into new situations. The steps toward the discovery have to be significant.
Since discovery – especially about oneself – is usually accompanied by strong emotions, this plot could lead to melodrama. Too much, and it becomes parody. There is also an element of learning in the discovery plot. The author must make sure she/he is not preachy and talk at length about the subject to convey a message.
When a person strives to outdo another.
For this plot you need two protagonists – or two teams – vying for the same goal. The competing characters should be evenly match to sustain the rivalry. If one side is so much weaker than the other, there is no competition. Writers sometimes oppose a physically strong character to an intellectual character. Whether the goal is to get the manager’s job or the heroine’s love, it isn’t going to work very well. Who wants a dumb man just because he can lift weights?
With two evenly matched protagonists, there will be a roller-coaster effect which will keep the reader turning the pages to the end when one makes a clear win or bows out to the competition in order to let the author write his own story. A confrontation right at the end makes a satisfactory ending whether it is civilized – as in bowing out – or threatening revenge.
Retaliation by the protagonist against the antagonist.
The revenge is usually outside the law. It is the time when a person takes justice into their hands because the law did not dispense the justice that was sought.
The protagonist is a good person who is forced into this new situation, and is not prepared for it, on behalf of the victim. It can also be that the protagonist was the victim. The antagonist is the person who escaped just punishment for his/her crime. The crime must be heinous enough that the reader will emphasize with the protagonist. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is not a crime justifying a revenge. The protagonist must also have tried every lawful means to get justice. The antagonist must have destroyed the emotional or physical life of the protagonist – the drunk driver who put the protagonist, or his/her beloved, into a wheelchair and gets a slap on the wrist and two months jail term for example.
There are three phases in the revenge plot.
The first one is stasis – when everything is calm and happy till the crime is committed.
The second is the preparation of the revenge, the execution, the third party who try to deflect the avenger for his/her own protection.
The third is the confrontation.
The protagonist should not become so blood-thirsty that he appears worse than the antagonist. Balance is required. Many readers will emphasize because of a similar situation they were in.
A person at a disadvantage.
The protagonist is downtrodden or exploited or has a handicap. The protagonist wants to succeed and get away from his/her situation and does so against the odds. Everyone will be sympathetic to the underdog. The writer should exploit the character’s feelings of anger, frustration and exhilaration.
There is of course the antagonist who doesn’t have to be a person. It could be an army in a historical novel or a bureaucracy in contemporary fiction.
The protagonist is no match for the forces against him/her but with perseverance will triumph in the end.
A person undergoes a change.
The protagonist didn’t expect anything to change in her/his life until an incident turns everything upside down. The change is in the person itself, not in the situation, although the situation may change too. The focus is on the person’s change.
The change or new awareness of the protagonist must come at a cost. It is not instantaneous. Depending on the genre, the transformation can be dramatic or subtitle.
The above plots are only a selection among the twenty main plots. Others are:
- Rags to riches – that is the Cinderella plot.
- Tragedy – when the protagonist makes the mistake that changes his/her life.
- Sacrifice – when the protagonist sacrifices himself/herself for the benefit of another.
A novel should have one plot although there will be elements from other plots. Plot should not be confused with theme.
The theme is the unifying, dominant idea of the novel. In my novel Northern Skies, the theme is “not all natives are drunk on Main Street”.