Writing a novel is hard work. Seriously, I don’t know how you guys do it. There’s so much to keep track of—plot, characterization, theme, setting, motivation, structure, dialogue, voice, backstory you won’t even use but have to know anyway …
And of those, plot seems like the most basic element, doesn’t it? I mean, when I say, “Tell me the plot,” you know to tell me the story. Because plot is just a story, right?
Well, yes. But I don’t mean, “Recite the scenes. In order.” If you’ve ever had someone tell you the plot of a movie, you know how boring that is. No, I want to know about the protagonist’s journey.
Research “plot” and you’ll find all sorts of information. Like the three basic plots. Or the seven basic plots. Or the twenty … (Read about that here. Or here. There are as many opinions about plot archetypes as there are books in the Old Library at Trinity College. It wears me out just thinking about it.) And knowing you’re writing, say, a coming-of-age story is only the beginning.
Because plot is not just a story—it’s a highly structured story. You’ve got to plan that thing out like the landing at Omaha Beach, kids. Beginning, middle, end, yes, but how and when those things happen has to be orchestrated and ordered.* One scene leads causally to the next.
Some call this narrative structure: exposition (introduction), rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. I’ve been calling it the story arc, because I like the imagery; I think it helps to picture it.
The arc (and this is the condensed version) is composed of several elements, including the stable life upset by the inciting incident, which makes known the story-worthy problem, which leads to conflict/struggle, which results in a climax (discovering what’s at stake and what can be sacrificed), then resolution and restoration of order. (It should be noted that some of this terminology is Les Edgerton’s, from his wonderful little book called Hooked. I’ve also written a little about plot before: here, here, and here. Eventually I’ll come up with a Theory of Everything About Plot but for now you’ll just have to make do.)
Recently, though, I stumbled upon something called “22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling,” by film writer/director Emma Coates, and number 4 caught my eye. It’s genius, it’s simple, and I think it might be a fundamental way to think about plot:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___.
Think about that for a minute.
Once upon a time there was ___ / the protagonist
Every day, ___ / the protagonist in his stable world/milieu
One day, ___ / the inciting incident
Because of that, ___ / the story-worthy problem is revealed
Because of that, ___ / the protagonist experiences struggle and conflict
Until finally, ___ / the conflict is resolved, not without sacrifice, and order is restored
Does that help?
* You work so hard to pull it all together into a seamless, coherent, transparent story, then I sit down to read and deconstruct it into little lists. :)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”