We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Plot

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!

Talking Character
Talking Prose
Talking Revision

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?

53 thoughts on “We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Plot

  1. Interesting post, I look forward to the next instalment. My hardest problem is I am writing a YA fantasy about a ghost (along with a million other writers) and as a former Physics teacher I find it hard to stop myself from explaining everything to the reader. For example how can a ghost go through a wall but sit on a chair without falling through it? How come a ghost’s clothes are invisible when the ghost is invisible? etc. I have worked out answers to my own satisfaction for these phenomena and others, but I keep feeling the need to explain it to the reader. These questions are important because the phenomena contribute to the plot in various ways.

    1. Victoria says:

      Christopher, are you psychic? Because we talk about this in next week’s installment, Talking Character. Seriously.

      Also, I actually attended a talk on authentic science in fiction last year—given by the Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences—and I happen to be editing the piece I wrote about it for my 2nd book right now.

      It’s like you’re reading my mind. . .

      1. Christopher, this is hard to do. Like explaining every other part of the world background. First, ask yourself if it really is important that those points are explained – it’s surprising how often they are not actually of much consequence to the story (but as Victoria says, we touch on this problem next week). Second… well read next week for that answer too.

      2. Dan says:

        Hey Vic,

        I can’t seem to find this installment you’re talking about. Any chance I could get a link? Cheers

        1. Victoria says:

          Thanks for asking! I’ve linked them all to one page here: We can’t leave fiction alone. There are, to date, seven of them. Whew!

  2. Grace says:

    I can tell a story, I loved stories, being from Africa oral story telling is the art, but then I write and I am told my grammar is awful and off the way to yonder lands in African tropical rainforests and cannot be read by the civilized world. I am doing a direct translation and thus the structure is sometimes upside down but that is my voice. I may end up being the only one reading my novels. I will wait and see what you say about grammar.

    1. Victoria says:

      Grace, I’m so glad you commented! if you trained in traditional oral storytelling, you already know more about the art of storytelling than most writers will ever learn.

      Grammar is the most surface layer of all the layers of editing. And I just took a look at your site—you have no problems with grammar.

      I hope we hear more from you here. I’d love to talk with you about oral storytelling.

      1. Grace, I’m agreeing with Victoria here! I definitely put storytelling above writing in importance – so I reckon you’re starting on the right foot. Storytelling is a way of thinking – writing is how you express it. You can learn grammar, language etc much more easily than you can learn the innate sense of how to tell a story. Although I also have to agree with Victoria that I can’t see that you’re at any disadvantage in the grammar department either.

  3. I have a similar problem to Christopher, but mine’s with magic. In order for it to be “believable” it needs to be consistent, so that means laying down the rules for how it will work.

    The trick has been incorporating enough of that information into my story for readers to understand what’s going on without giving them a lecture about how magic works. Something I read suggested that you provide the information as it is needed, and ONLY when it is needed. That way it becomes incidental to the story without bogging down the story. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

    1. Victoria says:

      Exactly, Daniel. We will be talking about this next week. And I gave advice on this some time ago on my advice column.

      Personally, I love the part about figuring out all the rules. That’s all the stuff all over my desk that always makes it so difficult for me to find a pen. 🙂

      1. Stay tuned, ,Daniel!

      2. Thanks to both of you. I look forward to the post later this week.

        BTW, I discovered that I love figuring out the rules as well. So much so that I started turning some my world-building notes into “scrolls” written by a “professor of magic” that explain how thing work. I posted these notes as articles on my blog for readers who are interested in knowing some of the back story.

        1. Victoria says:

          That’s the kind of attention to detail that gave J.R.R. Tolkien the fabulous, in-depth material that made his name.

  4. Here is my problem with plot. In my first draft of my debut novel (being passed around to agents now, hoping to land one!), there were at least 3 plots in one, and I had to narrow it down.

    My problem NOW is that I’m having a hard time remembering to show rather than tell! Like, I know everything that’s going to happen, why someone is doing something, and all of that. Yet, I have no idea how I am supposed to SHOW my readers that. I hope I am making sense here!

    I will come back later and check in for any feedback.

    1. Hi Heather! Show not tell is difficult to describe in a nutshell, but here goes. To show a scene instead of telling it, write how the character experienced the scene, rather than summarising what happened. But Victoria, perhaps we should expand on this in a future chat, as it’s a big topic and deserves space of its own.

      1. Victoria says:

        You know, that would fit perfectly in Talking Prose, our third chat. I discuss scenes (and exposition) under Line Editing in my book, and there are specific guidelines that will help enormously to keep you on track as you’re writing. Do you want to launch into that or shall I?

        1. Thank you both. I’m assuming Dirtywhitecandy is Roz? You guys are amazing! Thank you for keeping things so much fun to learn about!!

          I am very interested in hearing more about Prose. I am such a dialogue person, that sometimes, I really don’t know how to deal with prose. I don’t consider myself BAD at it, I just need some pointers on how to make it more….clear or tight? I think that is the word I want.

        2. Yes, dirtywhitecandy is me, er, Roz is Dirtywhitecandy. Long story. It’s eighteenth century.

  5. Great stuff. Will Tweet to all!

    1. Victoria says:

      Thanks, Adam—I saw it go by on Twitter! But you wind up in the ThankYou Parade every week, anyway. 🙂

      1. And thank you from me too!

  6. Cathy says:

    What a powerhouse the two of you, the ‘royal shes’! I’m on your circuit for April!

    1. Victoria says:

      Roz, she’s given us our nickname: the Royal She’s. I want a T-shirt.

      1. And tiaras. We wear them all the time in the UK.

        1. Victoria says:

          Oh! I WANT A TIARA. With my name spelled out on it. I would wear it everywhere—even in the tub.

  7. Jeffrey Russell says:

    You ask what is the biggest/hardest/weirdest problem I’m having right now with the plot of my WIP? Well – since you asked – I’ll just go ahead and tell you! It’s trying to figure out whether I am doing a really good job writing a bad plot, or a really bad job writing a good plot. Or worst of all, doing a mediocre job writing a boring story.

    I’ll keep working on it, though. And finish it. I’m anxious to find out myself whether or not it’s any good!

    1. Victoria says:

      Jeffrey, you’re too hilarious. I already know what your problem is, it’s layering, and you’re FINE.

      Writing a novel is just a whole lot of work, that’s all. It really should be illegal.

      1. It always turns out to be much harder than you thought it would be. You know how people talk about novels having a sagging middle? There’s also the sagging mid-point – where you realise you’ve been slogging for months but there’s still so much that’s wrong. We all get that, Jeff – but it’s the persistent souls who keep working and produce a good novel at the end.

      2. Jeffrey Russell says:

        Doing fine, huh? That’s what YOU say! If Charles Dickens were alive he’d probably say:

        Dear Jeff,

        I read your manuscript. It was the best of plots. It was the worst of plots.

        Yours truly,


        1. Victoria says:

          Your problem is you’re too damn witty for your own good. It’s nothing to do with your plot. Chuck, indeed!

        2. PS If all else fails, throw in spontaneous human combustion.

  8. Genevieve says:

    You two can chat as often as you like, if you’re asking me. 😉 Witty, bright and informative are you! What a duo. Thanks!

    1. Victoria says:

      We should have our own YouTube program, huh? My family’s planning a trip to Europe in October, and of course we intend to descend upon Roz and her Young Dave in London. In tiaras. All of us. Maybe we’ll get the guys to film us talking fiction in her kitchen with wine. . .although the results may very well be unpublishable. . .

      1. At least the photos will be easier to do. Shall we do it as a graphic novel?

        1. Victoria says:

          I tremble at the thought.

        2. Genevieve says:

          Hah! (I’ve been out of town, and thus very behind in my blog-reading) But, heck yes, a graphic novel. OH, I can’t stop laughing. I’ve totally just imagined the whole thing.

          Now to read the newest installment.

    2. Gen, I totally agree. They can chat as often as they want! ^^ They’re awesome.

  9. Genevieve says:

    Why is my smiley over the word Witty? IDK…

  10. Thanks, enjoyable. I’ve loved Wodehouse for years and lately I’ve been seeing his name and work everywhere. Cool. Ukridge is my favorite Wodehouse character. “It’s the scheme of the century, my boy!”

    1. Victoria says:

      Aahh! I love Wodehouse and have since I was a kid. That was Lord Roderick Spode who said, “B’doing!” in one of the Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry BBC episodes. We love that actor who played that guy.

      1. Cocktails, anyone?

        1. Victoria says:

          Yes, please!

          I’m waiting. . .

  11. Thank you both! I love story telling and your chat is just like that. I often struggle with the negative voice in my head re my plot.. is it interesting enough, will it hold the readers attention, how is the pace.. I find structure challenging in a positive way and now I see how it is all connected. Each scene should add something, the laws of nature ( I love that! ), the faux resolution, reincorporation, the Aha moment. These are all things I know but actually achieving them is something else. it is great to ‘hear’ you talking about them. Somehow the doubts dwindle with such strong, positive voices as yours. To answer the question you asked – the problem that has been stumping me is that my main character is based in the here & now, and I am struggling to come to terms with that. I have written about her family – stories of ancestors, the lineage, the magic, but writing about mysticism in the modern world is challenging – and perhaps that is because it is my own story. I think her identity crisis is similar to mine and the idea is, in part, to tell about the work I do, but to tell it as a story. And at the same time not base it on my own life – it is not a memoir or personal writing. It is a story – inspired by true experiences ( mine & others ) as well as imagined experiences. I know I must write, write, write..
    I am looking forward to the next post!

    1. Victoria says:

      It’s wonderful what an air of authority tiaras can lend, isn’t it?

      The first thing I’d suggest, in struggling with a story with the kind of quandry you’re talking about, is to write both novels. They don’t both have to be full-length, but go ahead and let yourself write the mystical side in full, even if you only need glimpses of it in the final ms to give that verisimilitude to your here-&-now story. Everything unseen by the reader that underlies your novel adds to the voice of authority with which you write.

      Kind of like a tiara!

      1. Agree with Queen Victoria here, about your quandary. Write the story so that it persuades the reader to believe it – both the mystical side and the non-mystical side. And be prepared to keep some of it in deleted scenes. Good luck – it sounds like a special project!

        1. Victoria says:

          Did I misspell ‘quandry’? How very gauche!

  12. Sally P says:

    I took notes on this post, I can’t wait to apply these ‘laws of nature’ to my WIP and see what I find out about it! Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Sally – hope it helps you out!

  13. Thank you Roz, it is a great suggestion from you both – and thanks for the reminder about being prepared for the deleting process…

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