Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Tuesday, March 17

Kurt Vonnegut On The Relationship Between Plot And Literature

“When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

By now you’ve likely heard about Matthew L. Jockers and his program (Syuzhet) designed to reveal the underlying plot structure of stories by analyzing sentiment. Jockers writes that he got this idea from Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Propp:

“After seeing the video and hearing Vonnegut’s opening challenge (“There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”), I set out to develop a systematic way of extracting plot arcs from fiction. I felt this might help me to better understand and visualize how narrative is constructed. The fundamental idea, of course, was nothing new. What I was after is what the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp had defined as the narrative’s syuzhet (the organization of the narrative) as opposed to its fabula (raw elements of the story).” (Revealing Sentiment and Plot Arcs with the Syuzhet Package)

Well! That combines two of my favorite things: storytelling and programming. I spent some time yesterday reading about MJ’s program as well as the lively debate between himself and Annie Swafford. (If you’d like to read more about this I recommend: A Fabula of Syuzhet.)

But I’m not going to talk about any of that today, at least not directly. After I finished reading “A Fabula of Syuzhet,” I decided it was time to re-read what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about plot. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Kurt Vonnegut On Story Structure

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have been at all snobbish when it comes to admitting the need for some sort of plot, some sort of story structure. For instance, during an interview, published in The Paris Review, he said:

“VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

“INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

“VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64, The Paris Review)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Plot Shapes

(Click to enlarge.)

1. Boy In Hole

Here someone gets into trouble and then gets out of it. The protagonist starts out just above average. They aren’t depressed about life. Not yet. 

KV says: “You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.” (From: A Man Without A Country)

2. Boy Meets Girl

This plot starts off with average people on a day like any other. There’s nothing exceptional here. Then something wonderful happens, followed shortly by a reversal of fortune. So this could be described as: The protagonist didn’t have much of anything, then got something, lost it and, finally, got it back.

3. Cinderella’s Story

KV remarks that this is the most popular story in western civilization. We love to hear this story. “Every time it’s retold someone makes a million dollars, you’re welcome to do it.”

A little girl is the protagonist. Her mother has died and her father has remarried. Her step-mother is a vile tempered ugly woman with two nasty daughters. 

There’s a party at the palace but she can’t go. “She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.

“And when she shows up she’s the belle of the ball [draws line upward]. She is so heavily made up that her relatives don’t even recognize her. Then the clock strikes twelve, as promised, and it’s all taken away again [draws line downward]. It doesn’t take long for a clock to strike twelve times, so she drops down. Does she drop down to the same level? Hell, no. No matter what happens after that she’ll remember when the prince was in love with her and she was the belle of the ball. So she poops along, at her considerably improved level, no matter what, and the shoe fits, and she becomes off-scale happy.”

4. Franz Kafka’s Story

Franz Kafka’s Story isn’t shown in the four minute clip, above. KV says:

“Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D towards bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.”

What Does Plot Have To Do With Literature?

Then KV asks the question, the question that, arguably, this has all been leading up to. KV asks: 

“The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature?”

And that is, indeed, the question. KV’s answer seems to be that it doesn’t. Why? Because these kinds of gains and ills aren’t what makes a story great literature. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having them, but they’re irrelevant. What makes Hamlet great isn’t that it has one of these structures, it’s that it told the truth. KV says:

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

So, what’s Kurt Vonnegut saying? He’s not saying throw away the plot, he’s saying use the plot to keep an audience’s attention—even if the plot is simply whether or not the protagonist will get an errant piece of dental floss out from between her teeth! Give the audience something that will keep them reading, keep them entertained, while you tell them your truth.

And that’s what storytelling, great storytelling, is all about.

At least, IMHO.

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict

What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes

To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question

When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary

Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

Wednesday, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.

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.

Tuesday, August 21

Plot Without Conflict

Plot Without Conflict

Plot without conflict. Impossible? Not necessarily.
In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc.—are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma (four-panel) manga; and, with this in mind, our artist has kindly provided a simple comic to illustrate the concept.
See the comic and read the rest of this thought-provoking article here: The significance of plot without conflict. Thanks to C.G. Cameron for the link.

I had heard something about this--creating plot without conflict--but never had described in any detail. Lovely idea. I would like to read a short story based on kishōtenketsu.

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Photo credit: davidppatriot