Monday, March 30, 2015

Road Map to Plot: 13 Thoughts on Getting Where You're Going

photo courtesy pixabay
"Ay, now the plot thickens very much upon us."--George Villiers, The Rehearsal (drama, 1671)

Travel has certainly changed over the years. When we were first married, we found that the best resource for planning a road trip was the local AAA (American Automotive Association), a place where you could sit across the desk from an agent who would meticulously line out a flipchart map--famously remembered as the "triptik"--on which she would highlight the route with a yellow marker and even make note of the stretches where road construction might slow us down. In later years we made use of Of course now there's the GPS and even more recently, all you have to do is ask Siri.

But I still like to hold a printed map in my hands and watch for upcoming landmarks on paper as we putter down the road.

The process I go through for plotting a book is similar: I like a hands-on, up-close approach, seeking help from those who have gone before and from whom we can draw on expertise. Over the years, I've collected a number of definitions, explanations, and "mile-markers" that have helped map my process on the road to plot, starting with the basics:

1. Plot (n.)--"1. Also called storyline. the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story; 2. a map or diagram."

2. "Traditional plot has this structure: 1. exposition (setting forth the beginning); 2. conflict (a complication that leads to a climax); 3. denouement (literally unknotting, the outcome of the conflict, the resolution)." --An Introduction to Literature

3. "The greatest gift the Greek dramatists bestowed upon humankind was this: ascending action, climax, denouement...In writing, it's the classical plot outline." --Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer's Book of Wisdom 

4. "Plot is nothing more than the way you organize your story--the way you fit the puzzle pieces together to form a connected and coherent picture for the reader." --Nancy Lamb, The Art and Craft of Storytelling

5. "Essentially and most simply put, plot is what characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters." --Elizabeth George, Write Away

6. "All fiction is about people, unless it's about rabbits pretending to be people. It's all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that's what we call 'the plot.'" --Margaret Atwood

7. "Plot springs from character in conflict." --Martha Alderson, Blockbuster Plots

8. "Plot is the crucible in which character is formed." --Stephen Roxburgh, Editor

9. "What happens is the plot. Someone is the protagonist. The goal is what is known as the story question. And how he or she changes is what the story itself is actually about." --Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

10. "Plot is what happens in your story, and structure is the shape of that plot." --Laura Witcomb, Your First Novel

11. "Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality (cause and effect)...It it is in a story we say 'and then?' If it is in a plot we ask 'why?'" --E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

12. "Cause and effect: that's what makes a plot." --Ansen Dibell, Plot

13. "A textbook definition of plot would be 'the sequence of narrative order.' Or, 'the sequence of events showing characters in action.' But in fact, when thinking about plot, it's best to remember what some British school children said when asked what writers they liked to read. Enid Blyton, they said--because 'there's always something going on.' Always something going on. In some ways plot boils down to those four words. Always something going on." --Jane Yolen, Take Joy

So to plot includes a plan, organization, action, sequence of events, outline, cause and effect, character in conflict, and a story in which there's always something going on.

Wow, that sounds like quite a trip. Are you ready to get your map together? What road signs along your route have helped you with your story's plot?


  1. I like to think of plot AND story. Plot is certainly the events, but story is why those things matter. For our characters to change and grow, the events (plot) need to challenge them in the exact right ways, or the specific type of growth needed will not take place, and the events will mean nothing.

    Recently, I was considering why a little water in my scrapbooking room (last December), derailed me so thoroughly emotionally. Well, it wasn’t the water, or even that I needed to remove 2/3 of everything from my scrapbooking room. And it wasn’t that it couldn’t have happened at a worse time—right before Christmas.
    It was the meaning (story) I gave to the water on the floor. Emotionally, I had “given my life away” (during the previous six weeks) to revising a manuscript on deadline for an important contest. Deep inside, I feared that if I were to continue down the publication path, and indeed, if I were contracted to write two books a year, I would be “giving all of my life away” for years to come.

    So I decided—I grew and changed—that writing is still important to me, but that I will not give it all I’ve got. I still need to give myself some time each day, or week, to work on another, very large and meaningful project, which is scrapbooking my (family’s) life. This project gives me so much happiness, it helps to offset the fact that writing is sometimes pretty frustrating.

    So while the plot, if this were a scene in a novel, was about me revising a manuscript and how some water in my scrapbooking room derailed me, the story is my decision never to let my writing completely overshadow something that has more—or at least as much—meaning to me—scrapbooking my life.

    I needed to say that because when I read about plot, excluding the mention of story, I feel I’m getting only half the picture.

  2. Cathy, thanks for your comments. All that you say is true: story is why the events happen, characters need to change and grow, plot needs to challenge them. My intent was to focus on plot as one element of story in the overall framework of novel writing (other elements being character, setting, POV, and dialogue), trying to explore the subject from a variety of approaches...

    In sharing about your personal struggles after getting flooded, you've also illustrated another important key in story: external and internal conflict. There's the external conflict of the damage done: the cleanup, the physical stress of what you went through while under pressure to revise. And then there's the internal, how you struggled with what's most important to you and how you changed based on what you concluded. You have really captured the essence of a good story here!

    Thank you. Have enjoyed the discussion :-)

  3. When I am traveling I have got to have a big old fashioned map in my hands. I like to see the big picture, my path in relation to the larger world. I'm still not comfortable with a GPS!

    With writing I like the combination of a "big map" sort of outline, but I love straying off course, too! Great collection of quotes on plot.

  4. I don't b think I've ever read so many good definitions before on plot. I also agree with Cathy's thoughts. I once gave writing my all. Since I've found photography, I can see that I want to spend time there to for me and for the chance to grow there too.

  5. I don't b think I've ever read so many good definitions before on plot. I also agree with Cathy's thoughts. I once gave writing my all. Since I've found photography, I can see that I want to spend time there to for me and for the chance to grow there too.

  6. I love this post - so many good points! It's interesting to me that you featured a picture of a map. I'm like Margo. I love to travel with a map. (Our oldest grandson -- the one who likes to write -- was thrilled to get his very own atlas for Christmas when he was three!)

    But even more important to me is that I always think of my plot in those terms. I imagine myself starting over on the east coast with a goal of getting to the west coast. There are lots of possible twists and turns in between. Sometimes we'll go uphill (ascending action, as you called it). Sometimes an unexpected signpost will change my journey. I might even encounter some new people along the way. But always I know - "I'm here, and I want to get there. Now what's my next move?"