Back in January, Roz Morris and I entertained ourselves mightily with a long, rambling, self-indulgent visit about the craft of editing, We can’t leave fiction alone—Part I and We can’t leave fiction alone—Part II. And we liked it so much we decided to roll up our sleeves and do it again—only this time focusing on the basic components of storytelling: Plot, Character, Prose, and [I Forget the Last One]. And we decided to run them once a week throughout the month of April.
So here we go! Please join us today for the first of these weekly editor chats: Talking Plot.
Victoria: Roz, tell me your overview concept of plot. What basic structure do you consider necessary to hold a story together?
Roz: Cripes, talk about a huge question! There are many possible ways to order the events in a story, and for me it always comes down to who the events matter to. Stories are relatable and enthralling because they are about people. Something happens to a guy, and we want to know what he’s going to do. Or he kicks it off by doing something, and we fear for him or cheer him on (possibly while fearing for him too).
Victoria: Her, too, yes?
Roz: Oh, yes. I was using linguistic he. The royal he.
So we have a beginning. Then we need a goodly number of steps where things don’t go as planned. There will be some triumphs, some disasters. The goalposts should keep shifting, so that the character thinks he wants something and then realises he wants something else. He acquires friends and makes enemies, which adds to the richness. By the end we should feel like we’ve come an awfully long way, and that the end really is all there is to say about it.
That’s the events structure. Then there’s also the temporal structure—because you might choose not to show your events in real time, but perhaps out of order in flashbacks, or in a series of nested letters if you must.
Victoria: Is this like double plotline? There’s the plot thread of what happens chronologically, and then there’s the plot thread of what happens to the reader as they read the novel?
Roz: ‘What happens to the reader. . .’ I really like that way of thinking! Murder mysteries are essentially a linear series of events jumbled up and presented out of order, with the characters piecing everything together. In fact, if the murder events were presented as they happened in real time they probably wouldn’t be nearly so interesting as they are if first a lady’s shoe is found, then a footprint in red wine, then a postcard dowsed in perfume, then a body in a lake.
Victoria: Of course—mysteries are all about tangling the chronology of the plot. I love that stuff! I could read it all day. . .
Roz: As for what holds all this together? The characters. Events are nothing if they happen to people we aren’t interested in. And characters create the plot.
Victoria: Absolutely. As you said, stories are about people. In fact, I like to say stories are about people in trouble. I mean, who needs to read about people without problems? I don’t need to read about not having problems—I should be so lucky. I need to learn how to handle the ones I’ve got!
Roz: One for you, Ms Mx—what are the biggest plot problems you see in manuscripts?
Victoria: Problems? Lack of structure. Natch.
Roz: Structure is story. It’s the bones, the scaffolding. It’s that gleaming skeleton thing inside the Terminator, without which he’d just be flesh-coloured goo.
Victoria: Gross, Roz! [laughing] Yes, I consider plot structure. Just as I consider story plot-plus-character.
Roz: [Thumping desk] Yes, yes, yessity yes! Got lots to say about that, but we’ll save that for next time. Sorry, you were saying. . .
Victoria: [laughing] That’s why I always think of storytelling, first and foremost, as just those two things: plot and character. You use your own world to discover character, and you use structural techniques to give that character a plot. And I think of fiction as storytelling put into the written word, using the techniques of prose, which is why I consider prose the third leg of fiction.
Roz: Agreed. Prose is actually quite a long way down the list—which might surprise some people. Folks, writing isn’t just about the words!
Victoria: No, it’s about storytelling using the techniques of the written word to keep readers’ interest for hours and hours. That’s how I broke it down in my book, anyway, and it helped a lot to organize the material once I understood that was the basic idea of what I wanted to say.
The thing is, there are two essential elements to a structure, and they’re so essential they’re like the posts holding up a lintel: Hook (that beginning you talked about). And Climax (that ending). So if either one of those is missing—or misplaced—right away you have a terminal prognosis unless you fix it. And writers do misplace them.
And there are two other aspects, I swear, that you also absolutely have to have:
A series of Conflicts of increasing tension. I call them Conflicts so writers will be totally acclimated to the mentality that these events cause trouble for the characters. It’s not like they just get together for coffee. They get together for coffee and find out one of them’s secretly running off with the other’s husband. And you can spend fifty pages setting up all the bowling pins that are going to be knocked down during that fateful coffee klatsch.
Roz: Oh yes. How many aimless scenes have I seen where characters meet for coffee, or wine, and just have a talk about someone without anything changing? Or anything in the conversation mattering? If it doesn’t matter, it’s just natter!
Victoria: [laughing] If it’s not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem.
Roz: Yes, wise words. Each scene, no matter how casually it starts, should add something. It can be a solution, but not the whole solution, but it’s better if it adds to the complications and trouble. (If it truly is the whole solution, then that’s the end. Bam.)
Victoria: Bam indeed! And no matter what else happens in your story there are always three big, honking, major Conflicts on the way to that Bam, and they always get worse as the story progresses—the climax of Act I, the apex or middle of Act II, and the climax of Act II. (The climax of Act III, obviously, is the Climax of the whole story.)
As Syd Field says, the ends of Acts I and II need to ‘spin’ your story and send it in a new direction. And I think of the apex of Act II, the middle of the novel, as a pivot or fulcrum, the point at which the characters stop moving away from their Hook and begin moving toward their Climax. So something fundamental in a different way has to change for them there, too.
Roz: The spins are so important—moving those goalposts. Without them, the story is rather like plodding through a marathon. And these changes are internal to the characters as well as coming from external forces. What the characters thought they wanted at the start isn’t necessarily what they are chasing by Act III.
Victoria: Yes. It’s all about internal conflict. What demons are riding these characters?
And there’s also that great fake-out right before the story’s Climax, what I like to call the Faux Resolution. (As it happens, there’s often a second one of those—a Faux Faux Resolution, if you will—a littler fake-out right before the last of the Conflicts, most often in mysteries when the characters pause and take stock of the situation, thinking they’re starting to put two-&-two together. . .ha ha.) You need that to make what follows the most intense it can possibly be. Without it, you’re pulling your punch.
Of course, it gets deeper and more complex as you work your way deeper and deeper into each element, but you literally cannot have a story without these basics. I’ve analyzed dozens of great novels—they all had them. If you try to do without, you’ll wind up like that horrible Ray Bradbury story about the guy who ate other people’s skeletons, leaving them jellyfish on the sands of life.
Roz: Terminators again. . .wow, what is that story?
Victoria: “Skeleton” in The October Country. I loved that book when I was a kid. . .which explains why I’m so dang neurotic now.
Roz: The faux ending is so important. We think it’s over, but it’s not. Never let the reader predict accurately what is going to happen. Instead, make them think they know—and then surprise them.
Victoria: Yes—to quote Wodehouse, “B’doing!”
Roz: How very Brit of you. [laughing]
Victoria: I’ll tell you, solidifying these elements, alone, solves the vast majority of overall structural problems I see. The rest of it’s applying all these elements holographically to each individual element, then each chapter, then each scene. It’s taking classic structure, like math, to fiction. And reading a story in classic structure satisfies something in the very core of the human brain.
Roz: That’s so true. I think of storytelling principles as laws of nature. We naturally see patterns and look for explanations and payoffs. Each scene needs to be a mini-story—a character starts out wanting something, and by the end something has changed.
Victoria: I love that—the laws of nature. People sometimes ask, ‘You mean like a formula?’ and I say, ‘No. Like what keeps your house from falling down on your head.’
Roz: Absolutely! It’s not formula, it’s simply the way people are wired! Another primevally satisfying story element is reincorporation. Bringing something back that was used before. For the audience it’s a great big ‘aha’ moment and they absolutely rock their socks off. A good plot misdirects and reincorporates.
Victoria: I call that resonance, and I talked about it a lot on the magazine last summer. That fabulous gongngngngngng feeling. Like The Gong Show, only in a good way. The feeling of inevitability—that ending just had to be the one.
So, Roz, suppose someone brings you a novel, and it’s obviously brilliant but just as obviously completely mis-structured: how do you figure out which of the events (assuming it is one of them) is the Climax? And the Hook?
Roz: I figure out who I’m most interested in. What started the character off, even if if it’s buried half-way through. Which is the most important problem, where it is really solved, or it it’s been left dangling and unresolved. Where we first connect—which is the Hook. I do it better if I’m away from my desk and even away from pens and paper, so I go for a long walk and think about these questions, then it becomes clear where it all needs to go. It’s incredibly satisfying. Easier to do for other people’s stories than for your own, though. That’s one of the reasons you need a good beta reader—or editor, of course!
Victoria: Oh, my god, it’s infinitely easier to do on someone else’s manuscript. That’s why I love this work so much. All those years of anguish over my own novels, and now I can get it right almost every time on the first revision! “I am inveensible.”
Roz: Oh yes, I love it too. Seeing a story that thrums with potential and knowing what needs to be done with it. . .Bring it on!
I know Roz likes to ask you guys questions at the ends of posts, so here’s one I just made up for both her and you: What is the biggest/hardest/weirdest problem you’re having right now with the plot of your WIP?