Plot, and how awesome it is, especially in stories (duh)
[note: this article first appeared as part of the How to be a Good Writer series on the C.P. White Media Blog.]
I want to feature plot in this post. I’ve posted other things about this subject (Archetypes), and that’s because it bears study. A good writer is one who understands at least the basic elements of plot. For me, plot = characters in a lot of ways. But for now, plot.
A good story has a skeleton in good order. If you break out the major events in any well-written story, you can build an outline around them (whether the author intended you to do so or not). Sometimes we get a look at it in disjunct ways, a la LOST or The Prestige, which are great stories that keep us guessing—but they’re organized quite well in the final analysis. In other words, whatever happens in the storyline has a reason for happening (the fictional past) and a consequence as well (the fictional future). That’s what I mean by a skeleton in good order.
Good stories have certain elements that are universal, too. It’s been that way since the dawn of time. If a crowd can relate to part of the story, they buy in. That’s what Heathcock bangs on about, and with good reason. It’s called empathy, and you should cultivate the hell out of it. If your book has it, people buy it. That’s the goal here, folks, and it doesn’t require selling out or ignoring/forgetting your principles, contrary to popular belief.
Take a look at any Sherlock Holmes story. I still stand in awe of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s knack for this. I always wonder which part of the story he wrote first; as if he wrote it inside out and backwards, because how can anyone write such mysteries? It’s crazy good writing, with lots of layers, lots of interdependencies; like a combination lock on a safe.
A good plot has lots of layers, interdependent interactions between the characters and the story—because really, the characters are the story. And ideally, as we read, we shouldn’t be able to notice the plot happening. It should feel just like life; like we’re voyeuristically observing the characters moving through their virtual world. In other words, a good plot shouldn’t be noticeably fictional. You’ve gotta have real and believable characters. In other words, they’re flawed. They have issues. And those issues, which go hand-in-hand with a good plot, are compounded by the issues that are created by that plot.
Bills are hard to pay in real life, for example. People get divorced and their kids pay the price in one way or another for the rest of their lives. Parents raise kids that become psychopathic in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. Young people get shipped off to combat and come back changed.If they come back. Accidents happen. Factions within families grow like a malignancy. And still the world turns. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to have some inexplicable time travel event or some impossible meteor hurtling toward earth in order to write a good story, or even tell one. You just need something for the reader to hold onto. And arguably, the closer to home it hits (depending upon a lot of other variables) the more people will empathize and the more books you’ll sell. And that’s the goal, if you’re making a living as a writer. And ironically, the more successful you become, there’s a danger of being more insulated from good material for inspiration.
I think that’s one reason why some writers at the beginning of their careers can produce better work (in the sense of being closer to the ground) than those who are a commercial success: they draw from real poignant conflicts through which they have had to live. that’s not to say Stephen King is an idiot. But Jane Austen was never “discovered” in her lifetime, and her work is delicious. Perhaps as a result, who knows. Real people live real lives that are marked and shaped by conflict, and they will be more apt to enjoy reading stories that have an air of familiarity, even if the setting is exotic or fantastic. We all want fiction to feel like the truth at its deepest levels. Remember V for Vendetta,where we heard the line, “writers use lies to tell the truth.” Fabulous.
About Chris White:
You know what they say—that behind every great man is an unstoppable rebel force—and it’s true. Like Moriarty was to Holmes, C.P. White is the reversed polarity doppelganger behind it all. Author C.P. White blogs about weirdness on the C.P. White Media Blog and spins dark tales, psychological thrillers that you’ll want to read with the lights on. Author Chris White works in the front office writing romantic YA paranormal fiction with Aaron Patterson, collaborates with illustrator Joey Zavaleta on the Great Jammy Adventure children’s books, and even serves as editor to award-winning authors. Learn more at www.cpwhitemedia.com.