“’The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a [chronicle] story, while ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”—E.M. Forster
In the former, there are two independent events. In the latter, the second thing stems from the first thing.
Three thousand years ago, Aristotle spoke about a plot being the sequence of events linked by cause and effect relationships. In Aristotelian terms, the final causation must drive all preceding events. So if we are plotting, we are constructing a sequence of events causatively, linked in linear time, about goal-directed action that results in a resolution. And we ought to follow the Chekhov’s Gun principle—i.e. to eliminate everything that is irrelevant.
Faced with the question of a process for what is essentially a highly creative endeavor, it is important to establish what it is that is being first constructed. It’s the plot, not the narrative.
How we write or show the sequence will become the narrative. Later.
A Plot Serves as the Base for the Narrative
In other words, a plot and a narrative are not the same thing. In the 2015 Academy Awards Best Picture winner Birdman, “the narrative starts too late in the plot.” What do I mean by that?
By the time Birdman opens on the screen, the protagonist is down and out, and looking to put up a Broadway play to revive his flagging acting career. But his past is a necessary element of the plot. Later, Birdman’s screen narrative is forced into flashbacks in order to provide the exposition necessary for the audience to understand his motivation.
Is it a bad idea to let the narrative start in the middle of a plot? In a two-hour movie where 99% of the audience is captured for the duration, yes, it is. But in a novel, you may want to start with your best scene that creates intrigue for the reader. Unless you are a brand author, the reader is not committed to reading 400 pages; she is not in a movie theater.
Yet, for a story to be meaningful, we must know the state of affairs before an inciting event crystallizes the action. In Jaws, the beach is a serene place, and the shark attack disturbs the equilibrium. In Rocky, we get to know a hustler, before he gets the chance to fight for the world championship. Then the story ignites.
A plot is a sequence of events in goal-directed action. The inciting incident is the one that crystallizes the goal, whether it’s to kill the shark, or win the world championship. To make sense of the goal that serves as a spine for our story, we must get to know the character/s who have the goal. The goal must meet with opposition. The action must see-saw, and, in the end, we must have a resolution whereby the goal is either achieved or impossibly defeated. And the entire sequence must mean something, in terms of lessons of life learned.
When the plot is ready, we can make use of several narrative execution techniques—such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, paralleling, subtext in action, withholding, putting the reader ahead of the character in information, sprinkling exposition like salt and pepper, and, in terms of a novel—excellence in style, symbolism, prose, subtext in dialogue (which many novelists lack), character realism, and so on. Refer here for a discussion of some techniques in a few Best Film Oscar nominees.
But for now, let's stay focused solely with plot, not narrative style or narrative techniques.
Creating a Plot
One problem for novelists and screenwriters is that there is no definitive process that leads to a romanticist plot. By romanticist, I mean a conflict-driven, purpose-driven, and fully integrated plot, not a meandering story that ends in anguish. A meaningless narrative may win you a literary award, but that’s another story.
The Plotting Paradox: SOPs v PEDs
Historically, there have been two major schools of thought:
One is the seat-of-the-pants (SOP) school. SOP adherents say we just start with a character, and take it from there. SOP is a hit and miss approach. It may need a lot of development editing after the first draft is written, and may well need a whole lot of rewriting. But SOP is optimal if you want to write a meandering narrative.
Development editing––rewriting the plot––is expensive in time and money. Let’s talk about the two methods that avoid the need for development editing.
One school is the plan-in-exquisite-detail (PED) school. PED doesn’t work for me. It’s simply too hard to get a detailed, step-by-step, scene-by-scene outline of a large body of work that is going to take a year to execute, and stick to it. Why? Because it’s hard to foresee everything in advance. When problems of logic not foreseen arise, I can’t ignore them and stick to a flawed outline.
And by putting that pressure of perfection in planning on myself, I’ll get started much later than I would have otherwise. But good PED does avoid redoing the plot.
Another difficulty I have outlining every scene in detail before starting is that I know the whole story, so my mind can no longer surprise me; the fun is gone, an internal “boss” directs me to flesh out the scenes. Unlike Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump, I know what’s coming next. Life is no longer like a box of chocolates.
I was a PED. I did far more thinking than writing. I still do, but now it’s more as I am writing; now I have a better paradigm. It’s neither SOP nor PED since both are suboptimal for me. My SOP plots meander if they get completed at all, and my PED plots appear preordained, rigid, and predictable. No matter how long I take to get started, I will encounter issues that need reworking as I go along. It is suboptimal for me to wait until every turn of the door knob is in my head. Or on paper as an outline.
The Climax-Signposted, Character-Driven Flow—A New Plotting Paradigm
Thinking backward from the climax has often been a strong way to plan a detailed outline. But I do this without specifying every little detail. Characters are growing on the page as I write. They must have room to move. If I set the sails for Cape York (the set of events that set up the climax) and that’s where I want to go, I let the ship navigator and crew have some latitude. I am the ship captain, watching, letting the crew think freely, but the final action must be bounded so that I do get to Cape York. I can intervene if I need to.
In other words, early in the narrative, I must have a resolute protagonist who has set sail for Cape York, or gets pushed by forces toward Cape York, where the final showdown will occur, and I know how it will end. But along the way, it can’t be smooth sailing at all. Other, equally purpose-driven characters must either oppose or diagonally bisect the trajectory.
But when the character I’m letting play in my head wants to take the ship off course, I say no. I am the Master and Commander, the Captain of the Ship, the God of the Story Universe—my characters are fictional. I control them and never let them take over.
The classic antagonist is the opposition. But diagonal bisection is the third force. This makes the story trajectory less predictable to the reader, e.g., in The Monuments Men, the Allies have an opposition: the Nazis. But the Russians, even though not the Allies’ direct enemy, have their own plans and can throw a spanner in their works. In Bridge of Spies, the Americans fight the Russians, but the East Germans play the diagonal third card.
Think of stories you have loved watching or reading. Are they just Hulk v Iron Man? Just two characters in conflict or a few more around them that make things more interesting?
A love story—will they or won’t they, which has two key possibilities, can be exciting. But a love triangle—who will she choose? How will she choose? How will they compete? What will the spurned lover do? That opens up many more possibilities.
I can include a third or fourth card in my character mesh to spice things up, but a sixth card is one too many, and even a fifth purposeful force can make the storyline too complex unless it is a long TV serial. If a girl is choosing between five finalists, it’s a reality TV show, not a novel.
Which brings me to the Mesh, the intertwined, interlocked cast of key characters that propel the story forward toward its climax.
So when I sit down to write, I do need to plot every scene in sequence first, but not with as much specificity and rigidity as in the PED school. I need five simple things, and then I let the Mesh take over inside my head. Then I plot, I write, I plot, I write … about a 2,000-word chapter at a time. Or two at the most. No need to overload my brain.
Five simple things set my North Star in the sky. What are they?
(a) In The Godfather—Michael Corleone does not wish to join the family business. He is clean. Then things happen around him. He caves in just a bit, makes just one allowance. Then he can’t stop himself.
(b) In Atlas Shrugged—Hank Rearden, both psychologically and philosophically, and Dagny, philosophically, undergo an awakening to which we are privy. So does Francisco, but we are not privy to that. In The Fountainhead, so do Peter Keating and Gail Wynand, and we are privy to that.
(c) The movie Flight(2012) is all about a commercial pilot’s redemptive awakening.
Stories are life-situation simulators. We can learn from characters who don’t learn through the narrative, but redemptions and awakenings tug at our emotional strings. Emotions are the heart and soul of a story. When emotions are engaged, the critic in our brain takes a rest.
And life situation simulators, as one might call narratives, must throw us into jeopardy. No airline company or Air Force spends money throwing its pilots into routine fly missions on a simulator.
In fact, the challenge is in the reverse. Can you think of a story that you find insightful or memorable, in which no character underwent any change or awakening?
I think through this inner journey completely before I commence writing. It’s a spoiler so don’t advertise it.
This is what I used (105 words) as my Back Cover guide before I started writing A Sharia London:
An affair between Marlon, a politically correct history teacher, and Jamila Khan, his young student, must be kept a secret. Jamila works covertly toward liberating women oppressed by radical Islamism.
As Marlon awakens to the dark underbelly of orthodox Islam, a turn of events leads to Marlon becoming a fugitive charged with murder. Jamila’s testimony can free him, but her eyewitness account could incur a death fatwa from the Islamic orthodoxy. Marlon won’t let her risk herself.
Hunted by Scotland Yard, and betrayed by England, Marlon must now work with the men he once loathed—his Sicilian uncles. Jamila’s life, and his, depend on it.
If I know the Inner Journey, it’s not hard to imagine that the first few scenes that catalyze the protagonist into shock and then action. But that action must cause a reaction from someone else in the Character Mesh. In my head, I let the focus shift to the other forces in the Mesh, until I find the optimal conflict. Once I write these few scenes, then I allow the Mesh to take over. Different voices want to do things according to their defined character (I don’t let them step out of character); they gnaw at me for attention. I select the best response, then write. Then I think again—who else in the Mesh is most upset by this? I keep doing this, never losing sight of the North Star. Eventually I will get to Cape York.
So I do the MILO, the Back Cover, and then the Mesh plays in my head—that’s the climax-signposted, character-driven flow, like a free flowing river whose direction has been channeled.
Curing Writer’s Block
My writer’s block is often cured by sleeping on it. I work on the intractable problem as I lie in bed, getting ready to sleep. I won’t always wake up with a solution, so I work my mind again for another day or two, using my subconscious each night until the Eureka moment happens. If it doesn’t for a week, I may have started writing too early; I may not have enough of the plot elements in place.
I also try to talk to the character in my Mesh who’s stuck in a really bad hole—“How’re you going to get out of this one, dude?” My mind will talk back to me. If no one’s in a hole, my life simulation is still running routine flying. Easy fix. I throw someone into a hole.
Practicing the Art of Plotting
I watch movies. Seriously. But I don’t just watch them. I turn the story events in my head, always thinking of how I could have made a lesser story better, a listless story more satisfying. Most of the time, I only need to twist the ending to make stories satisfying. I read fiction too, but reading a novel typically takes several hours of reading spread over several days.
I also give myself some mental exercises. What if I were asked to rip the Gail Wynand story off The Fountainhead, and make it work on its own? Now Wynand’s epiphany can’t lead to a gun at his head; the realization must come a bit earlier, and a redemptive story must take place.
Can I tinker with the poignant Birdman story to create a highly satisfying one instead? Of course I can.
In Thelma and Louise, what if Louise didn’t kill Harlan? Perhaps Harlan is part of a biker gang. Let’s say the gang is on Thelma and Louise’s tail but the women don’t know it, and the audience does. The cops are late, as usual, and, instead of Thelma getting into bed with a freckle-faced Brad Pitt, she meets the man of her dreams just as the gang discovers where Thelma and Louise are. You know, Thelma and Louise didn’t have to end the way it did. Now you have four major players in the Character Mesh—Harlan and his motorcycle gang, Thelma, Louise, and Thelma’s new lover. Five, if you include the cops on the chase.
You know from your high-school algebra that the number of permutations increase quite dramatically with the number of variables in play. Readers can’t predict the story now, because there are too many different routes to feminist vindication, bliss, tragedy, or a twist.
None of this is easy. But it’s fun.
This article benefited from constructive comments from Sally Jane Driscoll, Dale Halling, Marilyn Moore, and Walter Donway. “The Art of Plotting” originally appeared on The Savvy Street. It has been edited for our website with the permission of the author.
Vinay Kolhatkar is a freelance journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and finance professional. He is the Chief Editor of The Savvy Street. His work has also been published in The Missing Slate, Reason Papers, AS Journal, Cuffelinks, and JASSA. Vinay has penned two TV pilot screenplays (Marlon Stone, and Unlikely Partners), and has had two novels published in the unusual Romantic Thriller genre: A Sharia London and The Frankenstein Candidate.