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25 Things You Should Know About Plot

Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:

25 Things Every Writer Should Know

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

25 Things You Should Know About Character

And now…

1. What The Fiddly Fuck Is “Plot,” Anyway?

A plot is the sequence of narrative events as witnessed by the audience.

2. The Wrong Question

Some folks will ask, incorrectly, “What’s the plot?” which, were you to answer them strictly, you would begin to recite for them a litany of events, each separated by a deep breath and the words, “And then…” They probably don’t want that. What they mean to ask is, “What’s the story?” or, “What’s this about?” Otherwise you’re just telling them what happened, start to finish. In other words: snore.

3. A Good Plot Is Like A Skeleton: Critical, Yet Invisible

A plot functions like a skeleton: it is both structural and supportive. Further, it isn’t entirely linear. A plot has many moving parts (sub-plots and pivot points) that act as limbs and joints. The best plots are plots we don’t see, or rather, that the audience never has to think about. As soon as we think about it, it’s like a needle manifests out of thin air and pops the balloon or lances that blister. Remember, we don’t walk around with our skeletons on the outside of our body, which is good because, ew. What are we, ants? So don’t show off your plot. Let the plot remain hidden, invisible.

4. Shit’s Gotta Make Sense, Son

The biggest plot crime of them all is a plot that doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense. That’s a one way ticket to plot jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200 dollars. Do not drop the soap. The elegance of a great plot is that, when the events are all strung together, there exists a natural order as if this was the only way they could fit together. It’s like dominoes tumbling. Your plot is not a chimera: random parts mashed together because you didn’t think it through. Test the plot. Show people. Pull the pieces apart and ask, “Is there a better way?” Nonsense plots betray the potency of story.

5. The Quintessential Plot

The simplest motherfucker of a plot is this: things get worse until they get better. A straight-up escalation of conflict. It goes from “Uh-oh, that’s bad,” to, “Uh-oh, it’s getting worse,” to “Oh, holy shit, it can’t get any worse,” to, “I think I maybe maybe fixed it, or at least stopped it from being so totally and completely fucked.” When in doubt, just know that your next step as a storyteller is to bring the pain, amp the misery, and escalate the conflict. That’s what they mean by the advice, “Have a man with a gun walk through the door.” You can take that literally, sure, but what it means is: the bad news just got worse.

6. In Life We Avoid Conflict, In Fiction We Seek It

Fiction is driven by characters in conflict, or, put differently, the flame of fiction grows brighter through friction. A match-tip lights only when struck; so too is the mechanism by which a gun fires a bullet. Impact. Tension. Fear. Danger. Need to know what impels your plot forward? Look to the theme of Man Versus [fill-in-the-blank]. Man versus his fellow man. Woman versus nature. Man versus himself. Woman versus an angry badger riding a unicorn. Find the essential conflict and look for events that are emblematic to that.

7. Want Versus Fear

Of course, the essence of the essential conflict — the one below all that Wo/Man versus stuff — is a character’s wants versus a character’s fears. Plot grows from this fecund garden. The character wants life, revenge, children, a pony — and that which he fears must stand in his way. John McClane must battle terrorists to return to his wife. Indiana Jones must put up with snakes and irritating sidekicks to uncover the artifact. I must put up with walking downstairs to make myself a gin-and-tonic. Everything that stands in a character’s way — the speedbumps, roadblocks, knife-wielding monkeys, ninja clones, tornadoes, and sentient Krispy Kreme donuts sent from the future to destroy man via morbid obesity — are events in the greater narrative sequence: they are pieces of the plot.

8. Grow The Plot, Don’t Build It

A plot grows within the story you’re telling. A story is all the important parts swirling together: world, character, theme, mood, and of course, plot. An artificial plot is something you have to wrestle into place, a structure you have to bend and mutilate and duct tape to get it to work — it is a square peg headbutted into a circle hole, and you’re the poor bastard doing all the headbutting.

9. The Tension And Recoil Of Choice And Consequence

An organic plot grows like this: characters make decisions — sometimes bad decisions, other times decisions whose risks outweigh the rewards, and other times still decisions that are just plain uncertain in their outcome — and then characters must deal with the consequences of those decisions. A character gives up a baby. Or buys a gun. Or enters the dark forest to slay Lady Gaga. Anytime a character makes a choice, the narrative branches. Events unfold because she chose a path. That’s it. That’s plot. Choice and consequence tighten together, ratcheting tension, creating suspense. Choice begets event.

10. Plot Is Promise

Plot offers the promise of Chekov and his gun, of Hitchcock and his bomb under the table. An event here leads to a choice there which spawns another event over there. Foreshadowing isn’t just a literary technique used sparingly: it lurks in the shadow of every plot turn. Plot promises pay-off. A good plot often betrays this promise and does something different than the audience expects. That’s not a bad thing. You don’t owe the audience anything but your best story. But a plot can also make hay by doing exactly what you expect: show them the gun and now they want to see it fire.

11. Let Characters Do They Heavy Lifting

Characters will tell you your plot. Even better: let them run and they’ll goddamn give it to you on a platter. Certainly plot can happen from an external locus of control — but you’re not charting the extinction of the dinosaurs or the lifecycle of the slow loris. Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people. Characters say things, do things, and that creates plot. It really can be that simple. Authentic plot comes from internal emotions, not external mechanics.

12. Chart The Shortest Point Between Beginning And End

One way to be shut of the nonsensical, untenable plot is to cut through all the knots. If we are to assume that a plot is motivated by the choices and actions of characters — and we must assume that, because who else acts as prime mover? — then we can also assume that characters will take the most direct path through the story as they can. That’s not to say it’ll be the smartest path, but it will be forthright as the character sees it. No character creates for himself a convoluted path. Complex, perhaps. Convoluted? Never. Characters want what they want and that means they will cut as clear a path to that goal as they can. A convoluted, needlessly complex plot is just the storyteller showing off how clever he is. And no audience wants that. Around these parts, we hunt and kill the preening peacocks and wear their tail-feathers as a headdress.

13. On The Subject Of “Plot Holes”

Plot holes — where logic and good sense and comprehensible sequence fall into a sinking story-pit — happen for a handful of reasons. One, you weren’t paying attention. Two, your plot is too convoluted and its untenable nature cannot sustain itself. Three, you don’t know what the fuck is happening, and maybe also, you’re drunk. Four, the plot is artificial, not organic, and isn’t coming out naturally from what the characters need and want to do. Five, you offended Plot Jesus by not sacrificing a goat. You can’t just fix a plot hole by spackling it over. It’s like a busted pipe in a wall. You need to do some demo. Get in there. Rip out more than what’s broken. Fill in more than what’s missing.

13. If The Characters Have To Plan, So Do You

Many writers don’t like to outline. Here’s how you know if you should, though: if your characters are required to plan and plot something — a heist, an attack on a moon bunker, a corporate take-over — then you’re a fool if you think these imaginary people have to plan but you don’t. This is doubly true of genre material. A murder mystery for example lives and dies by a compelling, sensible plot. So plan the plot, for Chrissakes. This isn’t improvisational dance. Take some fucking notes, will you?

14. Set Up Your Tentpoles

A big tent is propped up by tentpoles. So too is your plot. Easy way to plan without getting crazy: find those events in your plot that are critical, that must happen for the whole story to come together. “Mary Meets Gordon. Belial Betrays Satan. An Earthquake Swallows Snooki.” Chart these half-dozen events. Know that you must get to them somehow.

15. The Herky Jerky Plot Shuffle Pivot Point Boogie

You’ve seen Freytag’s Triangle. It’s fine. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is the Internet. This is the future. We have CGI. We have 3-D. Gaze upon the plot from the top-down. It isn’t a linear stomp up a steep mountain. It’s a zig-zagging quad ride through dunes and jungles, over rivers and across gulleys. You’re a hawk over the quad-rider’s shoulder — watch it jerk left, pull right, jump a log, squash a frog. More obstacles. Greater danger. Faster and faster. Every turn is a pivot point. A point when the narrative shifts, when the audience goes right and the story feints left.

16. Plot Is The Beat That Sets The Story’s Rhythm

Plot comprises beats. Each action, a new beat, a new bullet point in the sequence of events. These establish rhythm. Stories are paced according to the emotions and moods they are presently attempting to evoke. Plot is the drummer. Plot keeps the sizzling beat. Like Enrique “Kiki” Garcia, of Miami Sound Machine.

17. Every Night Needs A Slow Dance

I know I said that plot, at its core, is how everything gets worse and worse and worse until it gets better. Overall, that’s true. But you need to pull back from that. Release the tension. Soften the recoil. Not constantly, but periodically. Learn to embrace the false victories, the fun & games, the momentary lapses of danger. If only to mess with the heads of the audience. Which, after all, is your totally awesome job.

18. The Name Of My New Band Is “Beat Sheet Manifesto”

You can move well beyond the tentpoles. You can free-fall from the 30,000 foot view, smash into the earth, and get a macro-level micro-view of all the ants and the pill-bugs and the sprouts from seeds. What I mean is, you can track every single beat — every tiny action — that pops up in your plot. You don’t need to do this before you write, but you can and should do it after. You’ll see where stuff doesn’t make sense. You’ll see where plot holes occur. Also: wow. A Meat Beat Manifesto joke?

19. Beats Become Scenes Become Sequences Become Acts

Plot is narrative, and narrative has units of measurement: momentary beats become scenes of a single place, scenes glom together to form whole sequences of action and event, and sequences elbow one another in the giant elevator known as an “act,” where the story manifests a single direction before zig-zagging to another (at which point, another act shifts). Think first in acts. Then sequences. Then scenes. And finally, beats. Again, take that 30,000 foot view, but then jump out of the plane and watch the ground come to meet you.

20. Your Sexy Mistress, The Subplot

In real life, don’t cheat on your spouse or lover. Not cool, man. Not cool. As a writer, you don’t cheat on your manuscript, either: while working on one script or novel, don’t go porking another one behind the shed. But inside the narrative? The laws change. You need to cheat on your primary plot. Have dalliances with sub-plots — this is a side-story, or the “B-story.” Lighter impact. Smaller significance. Highlights supporting characters. But the sub-plot always has the DNA of the larger plot and supports or runs parallel to the themes present. Better still is when the sub-plot affects, influences or dovetails with the larger plot.

21. Beneath Subplot, A Nougaty Layer Of Micro-Plot

Every little component of your story threatens — in a good way, like how storms threaten to give way to sun, or how a woman threatens to dress up as your favorite Farscape puppet and sex you down to galaxy-town — to spin off into its own plot. Your tale is unwittingly composed of tiny micro-plots: filaments woven together. A character needs to buy a gun but can’t pass the legal check. His dog runs away. He hasn’t paid his power bill. Small inciting incidents. Itty-bitty conflicts. They don’t overwhelm the story, but they exist just the same, enriching the whole. A big plot is in some ways just a lot of little plots lashed together and moving in a singular direction. Like a herd of stampeding marmots.

22. Exposition Is Sand In The Story’s Panties

Look at plot construction advice and you’ll see a portion set aside for “exposition.” Consider exposition a dirty word. It is a synonym for “info-dump,” and an info-dump is when you, the storyteller, squat over the audience’s mouth and expel your narrative waste into their open maw. Take the section reserved for exposition and fold it gently into the rest of the work as if you were baking a light and fluffy cake. Let information come out through action. Even better: withhold exposition as long as you can. Tantric storytelling, ladies and germs: deny the audience’s expectation ejaculation until you can do so no longer.

23. On The Subject Of The “Plot Twist”

A plot twist is the kid who’s too cool for school — ultimately shallow, without substance, and a total tool. It’s a gimmick. Let your story be magic, not a magic trick. Not to say plot twists can’t work, but they only work when they function as the only way the story could go from the get-go. Again: organic, not artificial.

24. The Ending Is The Answer To A Very Long Equation

Plot is math, except instead of numbers and variables it’s characters, events, themes, and yes, variables. The ending is one such variable. An ending should feel like it’s the only answer one can get when he adds up all parts of the plot. This actually isn’t true: you can try on any number of endings and you likely have a whole host that can work. But there’s one ending that works for you, and when it works for you, it works for them. And by “them” I don’t mean the men in the flower delivery van who are watching your every move. I mean “them” as in, the audience. P.S., don’t forget to wear your tinfoil hat because the flowers are listening.

25. Plot Is Only Means To An End

Speaking of ends, plot is just a tool. A means to an end. Think of it as a character- and conflict-delivery-system. Plot is conveyance. It still needs to work, still needs to come together and make sense — but plot is rarely the reason someone cares about a story. They care about characters, about the way it makes them feel, about the thing you-as-storyteller are trying to say. Note, though, that the opposite is true: plot may not make them love a story, but it can damn sure make them hate it.

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