What We Talk About When We Talk About Plot

E.M. Forster defined the difference between story and plot this way: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”

Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.
Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.

Plot is about cause and effect, how an event or another character’s action affects our hero and everyone else in the story and leads to new actions, which create their own effects — all of them building toward some climax in which the hero confronts his or her antagonist and triumphs in some way, large or small.

Many best sellers and virtually all mysteries and thrillers are plot-driven books. Some of them value plot at the expense of character development or any semblance of literary art, but I would argue that the best books find a happy balance among those elements.

The truth is, the most marketable books — and by that I mean the ones readers most want to read — have a recognizable plot.

Unfortunately, how to craft a good plot is rarely taught in creative writing programs — unless you study screenwriting. Those writers know the value of plot.

In fact, novelists can learn a lot by reading books on screenwriting. My favorite is Syd Field’s “Screenplay.”

The Classic Three-Act Structure

Writers visualize their plots in a variety of ways, including suspension bridges, circus tents and Aristotelian diagrams. But they all share certain key elements:

  • Act 1 introduces us to the main character and his or her world as it exists now. We get a sense of what the hero values and wants and what type of story we are about to read.
  • Act 1 leads to an event that threatens to upend our hero’s world — variously called a disturbance, a hook or an inciting incident.
  • In Act 2, our hero begins to respond, but so do the forces that oppose the character. The plot thickens, as they say. Some writers think of the transitions between the acts as doorways or refer to those changes in direction as plot points.
  • By the end of Act 2, the hero has the final piece of the puzzle or the final bit of information needed to take on his or her adversary.
  • In Act 3, our hero finally confronts his or her antagonist head-on, and their conflict is resolved in some satisfactory way. Loose ends are (mostly) tied up.

Larry Brooks advocates a slight variation by splitting the second act into two parts. The man is a bear about structure, for the simple reason that a good story well told is the key to selling books. He published a series of blog posts that went into great detail about how many scenes and pages each act should be and how to move effectively from one “milestone” scene to the next. I can’t find the series now, but he covers a lot of the same material in his book “Story Engineering.”

There is a whole lot of room to be creative within a three-act or four-part structure, but by following certain storytelling principles, you’ll increase the chances that agents, publishers, editors and (most important) readers will devour your book and tell their friends about it.

This post is a variation of one I wrote for Possibilities Publishing Company’s blog.

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