Showing posts with label Ronald B Tobias. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ronald B Tobias. Show all posts

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.

Friday, February 22

Plot, Story and Tension

Plot and character are the two forces at the heart of every story.

I'm reading 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias. It is brilliant!

In the first third or so of the book Ronald B Tobias asks the questions: What is plot? What is character? What patterns make up plot?

What follows are some of my notes.

Plot Is A Force, A Process, Not An Object

Plot is about creating expectations in the reader.

We often hear the metaphor that plot is a skeleton that holds your story together, and this metaphor makes sense, but there's a problem:
Plot isn't a wire hanger you hang the clothes of a story on. Plot is diffusive, it permeates all the atoms of fiction. It can't be deboned.
Tobias writes that plot is like electromagnetism, it's "the force that draws the atoms of the story together. It correlates images, events and people."
[Plot] is a force that attracts all the atoms of language (words, sentences, paragraphs) and organizes them according to a certain sense (character, action, location). It is the cumulative effect of plot and character that creates the whole.
Plot isn't dead, it isn't static. "Plot isn't an accessory that conveniently organizes your material according to some ritualistic magic. You don't just plug in a plot like a household appliance and expect it to do its job. Plot is organic. It takes hold of the writer and the work from the beginning."

Story: A Chronicle Of Events

Here's the distinction Tobias draws between story and plot: story is composed of a series of events but plot has to do with the causal interactions between the events.

In Why Detection? P.D. James writes:
E. M. Forster has written: 'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.'
Ronald B Tobias writes:
Story ... is a chronicle of events. The listener wants to know what comes next.

Plot is more than just a chronicle of events. The listener asks a different question: "Why does this happen?"

Story is a series of events strung like beads on a string. (This happened and then this happened and then …)

Plot is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behavior. Plot involves the reader in the game of "Why?"

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.
Where story is "a narration of events in the sequence that they happened" plot "is a story that has a pattern of action and reaction".

Aristotle's concept of unified action lies at the heart of the plot. Cause and effect. This happens because that happened, and so on.

The Three Parts Of A Story

A unified action creates a whole made up of a beginning, middle and an end.

Part 1: Setup

In the first part of the story you present the problem that must be solved. This is the initial action.

Here you define your characters and what they want, what they need. This is their intent.

What your characters want is their motivation, it is WHY they do what they do.

Part 2: Rising Action

"Whenever intention is denied, the effect is tension."

Tension is created through opposition.

Characters DO things, they act on the want/need set up in Part 1. That was the cause, now in the middle of the story we see the effect.


In the second part of your story characters run into problems that keep them from successfully completing their intentions.

Your protagonist is motivated by her wants, her desires, and she acts to fulfill them, but something prevents her from doing this, from attaining her goal.

Aristotle called this something a reversal. Tobias writes, "Reversals cause tension and conflict because they alter the path the protagonist must take to get to her intended goal."


Recognition is "the point in the story where the relationships between major characters change as the result of the reversal."

A reversal is an event but recognition is "the irreversible emotional change within the characters brought about by that event".

Part 3: The End

The ending is the logical outcome of all the events in the last two parts.

Three things happen at the end: the climax, falling action and the denouement.


We've already seen that tension = conflict but there are different kinds of tension.

Local tension 

Local tension is the result of a conflict of the moment. Local tension doesn't have much of an effect outside the immediate circumstances that created the tension. For instance, consider the following story:

Boy meets girl.
Boy asks girl to marry him.
Girl says no.
Boy asks girl why.
Girl says, "Because you smoke."

The girl's refusal to marry the boy because he smokes creates a local tension. It is the result of a conflict of the moment. As the name suggests it doesn't have much of an effect outside the immediate circumstances that created the tension.

Because of its localized effect you can't write a novel based on local tensions. It wouldn't work. We need something bigger. Even stringing together local tensions wouldn't work. We need to dig deeper into the character and find out what makes him or her tick.

For instance, we could write a novel about the boy's internal struggle whether to quit smoking for the girl. It could be that her father died because he smoked and she doesn't want to risk losing her husband the same way. This would pit the boy's desire to smoke in direct conflict with  his wish/desire to marry the girl. Why is smoking important to him? Yes, it's an addiction, but perhaps there is a deeper reason.

Ultimately the boy will have to choose between smoking and the girl. Those are strong, or relatively strong, opposing forces that are grounded in character.

Make tension grow as opposition increases

A story requires constant tension and this tension needs to build as the climax approaches. This is another reason we need strong tension, something that can exist in the background.

Also, though, the protagonist needs to encounter a series of obstacles/conflicts, each of which deepens the opposition and builds intensity.

As we saw in the previous section, local conflict/tension can't do this on its own. If you throw a series of local conflicts at your character your readers will just be bored. Tobias writes:
The serious conflicts, the ones that are the foundation of plot, are the ones that deal with the character in fundamental ways.
At the end of the story, in the third act, the tension, the crisis, needs to deepen.

"You must continually test the character through each phrase of dramatic action."

Every time something happens the stakes grow. For instance in Fatal Attraction, "The effect of action is to snowball, increasing tension and conflict from the mundane story of a man who has cheated on his wife to one who is battling a psychotic woman who is willing to kill to get her man".

#  #  #

Well, that's it! Those are my notes so far. 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias is a terrific book, I recommend it if you want to read something about plotting and the craft of fiction.

What do you think of Tobias' view of plot as inseparable from story?

Other articles you might like:

- Patricia Cornwell Vindicated In Court, Wins 50.9 Million Dollars
- Story Structure Provides A Framework For Meaning
- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story

Photo credit: "Against the wind | Chennai Marina Beach" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.