Nothing New Under the Sun

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. :)

 

Tweet: I don’t mean recite the scenes in order. I want to know about the protagonist’s journey.
Tweet: You’ve got to plan that plot out like the landing at Omaha Beach, kids.

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.”

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6 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    Wait, let me shift my point of view a little, I think I got it!

    No, it’s slithered away again.

    Let me turn the page slightly and maybe I can catch a glimpse.

    Wait.

    Coming, coming.

    Oh, no! What happened?

    Huh?

    You’re kidding?

    That’s what the story’s about?

    :-)

  2. Sher A Hart says:

    Hi. Like you, I’ve read since about age three, but focused on fantasy and SF when I found Tolkien and Asimov at age nine. I decided to write about eight years ago and joined critique groups, went to conferences, seminars, etc. I’ve written and rewritten to the point I decided I’m too picky about my own work. I thought maybe I’d be better at editing. I learned early on about the Chicago Manual of Style and have plenty of other reference material. More important is my eye for detail.

    I got in the habit of sending authors lists of the mistakes I found in their books as I read to review, and boom, one asked if I’d edit her rhyming picture book. She had mixed meter, mixed past and present tense, and misused words. Since I sent her a better verse, I’ve I cured about ten of her books of everything from passive voice and repetition to head-hopping as I re-metered. I also copy edited novels for a couple of other authors and formatted both print and eBooks for another.

    This is a fun plot pattern, but I think of all the story structure tools I’ve learned, I like Joyce Sweeny’s plot clock the best. I’m a visual learner and it’s easy to remember. I read this post to decide whether I can really call myself a developmental editor. The other reason I’m here is to look for an editor I can ask for help if I get in over my head on the developmental end. Helping my blog partner develop his chapter books is a far cry from some of the lengthy books I read.

  3. […] story-worthy problem. You’ve seen the phrase around, I’m sure, and not just here. I was first exposed to this terminology in Les Edgerton’s delightful book, Hooked (published in […]

  4. […] the subplot, and the protagonist. Sounds almost unbelievably simple, doesn’t it? Use the formula here to state the plot, simply and briefly. Yet I see manuscripts all the time in which it’s hard to […]

  5. […] I’ve expanded  on a piece written by a screenwriter at […]

  6. […] • http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/2013/02/nothing-new-under-the-sun/ Take a look at this formula and see if you can write your story into it. I’d be interested in seeing that. […]

4 Trackbacks

  1. By What Are the Elements of a Story-Worthy Problem? on 26 August, 2013 at 9:58 am

    […] story-worthy problem. You’ve seen the phrase around, I’m sure, and not just here. I was first exposed to this terminology in Les Edgerton’s delightful book, Hooked (published in […]

  2. By It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green on 27 March, 2014 at 11:32 am

    […] the subplot, and the protagonist. Sounds almost unbelievably simple, doesn’t it? Use the formula here to state the plot, simply and briefly. Yet I see manuscripts all the time in which it’s hard to […]

  3. By Synopsis: An Idea Is Good. A Plan Is Better. on 6 April, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    […] I’ve expanded  on a piece written by a screenwriter at […]

  4. By No Snake Oil* For Sale Here on 18 July, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    […] • http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/2013/02/nothing-new-under-the-sun/ Take a look at this formula and see if you can write your story into it. I’d be interested in seeing that. […]

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