Plot is the biggest worry for fledging writers. In my workshops, I am often told that new writers find the concept of plot the hardest to grasp. The problem often lies in the confusion between what constitutes as story and what is plot.
The basic rule is: story is the summation of the novel and plot is how that happens. Plot is the device we use to tell the story. When we tell someone the story of our day we don’t recount the events in a linear way. It would be boring to hear how we woke up, went to the loo, brushed our teeth etc. No, instead we grasp the ‘story’ of our experience and recount it, in a way that is entertaining and telling. Telling in the sense that it highlights exactly what we are wanting to put across.
Plot is the where, when, how, who. It is the details of the narrative – how the story moves from A to B.
The narrative structure of events, is the architecture of the story. Story is the sequence of events, and the order in which the narrative is described and told is the plot.
Plot is the sum of the events, told not necessarily in a consecutive order, but generally consistent with the story and often considered as being at one with the narrative — the building of the story itself.
Think of it as an equation. I know, we are writers, we don’t do math and we certainly don’t do hard math, but look at it this way:
Premise + Character + Conflict =Action
Plot is not only the sequence of events, but is really the difference between the progression of events in a story’s structure, and the order in which these are revealed to the reader and to the characters. Therefore, we should think of plot as being both a sequencing of events and the revelation of these events. It is all about the exposition. Not all plots are logical, or merely an arrangement of incidents. There is an authorial construct to help formulate the narrative – this is what plot is. Plot is the arrangement of events as decided by you the writer, whereas story is the sequence of events as they happen in time – not as they are presented. We, as the writer, get to decide what the characters know and when they know it, and subsequently, what the reader knows and when they know it.
If you read the previous feature in this series, you will know I like to turn to the theorists and find a good academic take on things. Gustav Freytag was a Nineteenth Century German novelist who saw common patterns in the plots of stories and novels and developed a diagram to analyse them. In Freytag’s Pyramid, we have a breakdown of what plot is doing for us as the writer. Remember plot is a device we employ, as writers, to tell the story in a better way. Yes, plot is your friend. It exists in order for us as writers to tell the story as we wish, not necessarily as it exists.
If you are struggling with plot there are a few handy exercises you can use to help you make sense of what you want the plot to do.
First of all, make a timeline for the events of the novel. This will give your novel structure – the bare bones of your skeleton or the tent poles for your tent, if you like. Then consider your emotional beats – the places in your story where your character is feeling a rush of emotion, whether it be fear, love, hate. Where these emotional beats spike is usually where characters are dealing with conflict. Utilise these episodes to help move the narrative along and to make your reader feel invested.
So, remember plot is not your story’s arch nemesis. They co-exist, just like Superman and Spiderman.
(c) Sharon Dempsey
About Little Bird:
Forensic psychologist, Declan Wells, is dealing with the aftermath of a car bomb during the Troubles in Belfast, which has left him in a wheelchair. But that is only the start of his problems.
Welsh Detective, Anna Cole is running away from a dead-end relationship and the guilt of her mother’s death. She hopes secondment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland will provide a distraction.
There is a killer on the streets targeting young women and leaving behind macabre mementoes to taunt the police.
Can Declan and Anna work together to catch the deranged killer before he strikes again?
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Read Sharon Dempsey on Story Craft: Exploring the Art of Creative Writing