Tuesday, February 26

Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us

Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us

A few days ago I wrote about Ronald B Tobias' book 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. The book is terrific. Tobias writes about something I've been interested in for years: Urban myths.

Urban Mythology

How do urban myths form? They have no author. Or they do, but not just one. They have many authors, many different people who--unconsciously, unintentionally--weave a story which is so catchy, so interesting, it spreads through the population lasting generation after generation. No publicist is needed, no marketing, no sales on Amazon.

How is this done? What makes these stories so interesting, so catchy, that they are told and retold for generations?

That's what I'd like to talk about today.

The Choking Doberman

First, let's look at an example of an urban myth:
A woman returned to her house after a morning of shopping and found her pet Doberman pinscher choking and unable to breathe. She rushed her dog to the vet, where she left it for emergency treatment.

When the woman got home, her phone was ringing. It was the vet. "Get out of your house now!" he shouted.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Just do it! Go to a neighbor's. I'll be right there."

Frightened by the tone of his voice, the woman did as she was told and went to her neighbor's.

A few minutes later, four police cars screeched to a halt in front of her house. The police ran inside her house with their guns drawn. Horrified, the woman went outside to see what was happening.

The vet arrived and explained. When he looked inside her dog's throat, he found two human fingers!

He figured the dog had surprised a burglar.

Sure enough, the police found a man in a deep state of shock hiding in the closet and clutching a bloody hand. (20 Master Plots and How to Build Them)
What's interesting to me about this story is that it has no author. At least, not as I usually think of it. This story is an urban legend, it's a piece of fiction created by several authors who unintentionally added to it over time.

Why did this story spread? What characteristics does it have that make it engaging? Ronald B. Tobias writes:
The real value of this legend is that it evolved with constant retelling until it became plot perfect, the same process that perfected the fable, the fairy tale, the riddle, the rhyme and the proverb. The story went through thousands of oral rewrites until it could evolve no further.
What characteristics does this story--and, in fact, any urban legend--have that make people want to tell, and retell, it?

On one level the answer is easy: it's entertaining. But what qualities make it entertaining? When we find out we can use those answers to help structure our own fiction.

The Structure Of The Choking Doberman

There are three parts to The Choking Doberman. Above, I've changed the font in the first part to green, the second to red and the third is in black.

First part:
- Hook: the woman's doberman is choking. It raises the question: What is the dog choking on?

Second part:
- Startling complication: the vet calls and tells the woman to get out of her house immediately, but doesn't explain why.

Third part:
- Scary climax: A bleeding intruder is found in the dog-owner's home.

Protagonist: A woman
Antagonist: A burglar

As Tobias writes: "What happens in "The Choking Doberman" is not that different from what happens in the novels of Agatha Christie or P.D. James. It's only a matter of degree."

The Plot Of The Story: Riddle Me This

What is the plot of The Choking Doberman? What is it about?

Yes, it's about a dog, and it's about terror, but those aren't the plot. The plot of the story, it's essential underlying structure, is that of a riddle.

Tobias writes:
The point of a riddle is to solve a puzzle. It comes from the same tradition as Oedipus, who must solve the riddle presented to him by the Sphinx, and the same tradition of Hercules, who had the unenviable task of having to solve twelve tasks, the famous labors, each of which was a riddle to be solved. Fairy tales are chock full of riddles to be solved—children delight in them. So do adults. The riddle is the basis of the mystery, which to this day is arguably the most popular form of literature in the world. Today we think of a riddle as a simple question that has a trick 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) answer. "What has . . . and... ?" But a riddle really is any mystifying, misleading or puzzling question that is posed as a problem to be solved or guessed. And that fits "The Choking Doberman."
The story gives the reader two clues, one in the first part, one in the second, and the solution in the third. These clues can be phrased as three questions:

1) The dog is choking on something. WHAT is he choking on?
2) The vet tells the woman to flee her home. WHY did he tell her this?
3) WHO is to blame?

In this case, the WHO (in the third part or 'act') is the answer to both the 'what' and the 'why' questions, and that's just how a riddle works.

Story Without Plot: The King And The Queen

I know I used this example in an earlier article about plot, but I'm using it again because it's just so good! Tobias writes:
Novelist E.M. Forster spent a lot of time thinking about writing. He tried to explain the difference between story and plot in his book Aspects of the Novel. "The king died and the queen died." Two events. A simple narration. This is story.

But if you connect the first movement (the death of the king) with the second movement (the death of the queen) and make one action the result of the other, we would have a plot. "The king died and then the queen died of grief"
Here's the main difference between The Choking Doberman and The King And Queen: The story about the Doberman "arouses and directs our expectations," but "the king died and the queen died" does not.

Why is this?

The Essence Of Plot

"The king died and then the queen died" does not direct our expectations because the events of the story don't have the right kind of causal connection to each other. The death of the king and the death of the queen are disconnected. The problem is that "there are no clues, no connections, no apparent causal relationships" between the two events.

Tobias writes:
Story requires only curiosity to know what will happen next. Plot requires the ability to remember what has already happened, to figure out the relationships between events and people, and to try to project the outcome.

One More Thing: Chekhov's Gun

Just like with Lieutenant Columbo there is always one more thing. Ronald B Tobias goes on to talk about how, in addition to the events of the story being related to each other causally such that one explains or builds on the other, the ending of the story must leave no legitimate room for questioning. He writes:
We prefer order to disorder in fiction. We prefer logic to chaos. Most of all, we prefer unity of purpose, which creates a whole. Wouldn't life be great if it contained nothing extraneous or coincidental, if everything that happened to us related to a main purpose?
This is related to Chekhov's famous gun example:
Chekhov's gun is a metaphor for a dramatic principle concerning simplicity and foreshadowing. It suggests that if one shows a loaded gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be fired in a later act; otherwise, the gun should not be shown in the first place. The principle was articulated by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and reported in various forms. (Chekhov's Gun, Wikipedia)

To Sum Up

Here are our three principles of plot:

1. Why, What --> Who

Mystery stories are like riddles, but one thing all stories have in common is that we must attempt to establish cause and effect links between the events of the story, and the ending--while it might contain something surprising--must flow from these naturally. (No one said writing was easy!)

2. The end of the story must leave no legitimate room for questioning.

If we take the principle behind Chekhov's Gun to heart, this will be the case.

3. Unity

You're right, there were only two points, but just as in the story of The Choking Doberman, the who emerged from the why and the what so the third point--that one's story must form a unity--emerges from the first two.

Life often doesn't make sense, life is chaotic, but our stories must present an ordered universe where one thing happens because of another and the end of the story concludes the events in a satisfying (though perhaps tragic) way.

(A caveat: I should note that, here, I'm concerned with genre fiction, sometimes called category fiction. For instance, if--at the end of a romance story--the lovers never make any sort of connection, if their fates are completely disconnected to any of the preceding events, I guarantee you the author is going to have more than a few disgruntled readers. Readers of mainstream fiction may have other expectations.)

I mentioned this, above, but this material has been drawn from Ronald B Tobias' excellent book, 20 Master Plots And How To Build Them.

Do you have a favorite urban myth? If so, please share!

Other articles you might like:

- Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction
- Joe Konrath Talks About How To Sell Books On Amazon
- Exposing The Bestseller: Money Can Buy Fame

Photo credit: "katie melua:if the lights go out" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. The one that ends with finding the serial killer's hook hanging off the car's door handle. I got told that one while walking at night in the dark dark woods and the teller would NOT shut up.

    Harry Potter is a partial exception: the current adventure is wrapped up, but the over all story arch is ongoing, rather than being a And they lived happily ever after.

    Which sort of proves the point.

    1. Oh, that's right! Now that you mention it, I have seen something like it on Supernatural. I just looked it up and, apparently, there are a few variations:


      In at least one of the versions the amorous couple survives.

      Loved the Potter books, especially the first few.


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