What is Plot, Anyway?

plot  / ‘plät / n.: 1. A small piece of ground, generally used for burying dead people, including writers. 2. A plan, as for designing a building or novel.

Plot happens.
You might be one of those writers who likes to have the story all worked out in your mind before you write your novel. You preplan, plan, and revise the plan before writing. Maybe you have index cards all over your wall or you store your scenes in your computer.

Or you might be one of those seat-of-the-pants writers who loves to plop down each day at the computer or over a pad of paper and just write, letting the story flow without planning, anxious to see what your wild writer’s mind comes up with.

You could also be a ’tweener who does a bit of planning but still seeks some surprise and spontaneity in the daily output of words.

No matter what kind of novelist you are, there’s one thing you will have when you’ve completed your manuscript—a plot.

It might be a lousy plot, a disjointed plot, a mess, or a masterpiece. But the plot will be there, staring you in the face.

The only question at that point will be, “Does it work?”

By work I mean connect with readers. That’s the function of plot after all. The reading experience is supposed to transport people, move them through the power of story. Plot is the power grid that makes it happen.

You may be one of those writers who doesn’t care if your novel connects with readers. You write what you want, the way you want it, and that’s that. Writing is its own reward. If someone happens to like it, fine. But you don’t want to be bothered with bourgeois concepts like plot.

Fine. No one’s forcing you to connect with readers. But if you want readers, if you dream of writing novels that get published and sell, then you have to give plotting its due. Because that’s what agents, publishers and readers think about when they open books. Consciously or not, they are asking questions:

  • What’s this story about?
  • Is anything happening?
  • Why should I keep reading?
  • Why should I care?

These are all plot questions, and if you want to make it as a writer of novel-length fiction, you must learn how to answer them satisfactorily, wonderfully, surprisingly.

That’s what this book is about.

“What about character?” you might ask. “Can’t I just write about a fascinating character and see what happens?”

Yes. The what happens is your plot. And, as with any plot, it can turn out flabby and incoherent even with great characters. This book will help you avoid that outcome.

How about a stream-of-consciousness novel? One that’s all about the language, and can’t be limited by such mundane matters as plotting?

It’s a stretch to call such a thing a novel. Fiction, yes. I’ll even accept experimental novel. It might be fascinating in its own right, but is it really a story? I suppose that’s an academic debate.

But if you’re interested in selling your books, plot is something you need to wrestle with.

And wrestling makes you stronger. Even if you ultimately decide, as a writer, that you want to forget about plotting conventions, the effort to understand them will serve you well. You’ll become a better novelist.

Views on Plot

Some writers, critics and other assorted literati sniff at plotting as a tool of craft. A synonym for plotting, in this mindset, is slumming, something decent people just don’t do.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz sums up this thinking. She wrote about her experience as a young editorial assistant in New York trying to be a novelist. She and her contemporaries were snobs about literary prose, she says, elevating wordsmithery above such mundane matters as telling a good story.

But then Ms. Korelitz ended up writing a legal thriller, and discovered—gasp—that she liked it! Her mind was changed, as you’ll see below in this excerpt from “Story Love,” which appeared on Salon.com:

When you get right down to it, there’s something uniquely satisfying in being gripped by a great plot, in begrudging whatever real-world obligations might prevent you from finding out what happens next. And it is especially satisfying to surrender to an author who is utterly in command of a thrilling and original story, an author capable of playing us like fish, of letting us get worried, then riled up, then complacent and then finally blowing us away when the final shocks are delivered.

Ms. Korelitz ultimately concluded that, while glorious prose is a fine thing, “without an enthralling story, it’s just so much verbal tapioca.”

Now, if verbal tapioca is your thing, we have a First Amendment that guarantees your right to produce it.

But if you want readers, you must consider plot, whether you sniff at it or not.

The Power of Story

Plot and structure both serve the larger enterprise—story.

In the end, that’s what this whole novel thing is about. Telling a story in a way that transports the reader.

Let’s talk a little about that.

If a reader picks up a book and remains in his own world, there was no point in picking up the book in the first place. What the reader seeks is an experience that is other. Other than what he normally sees each day.

Story is how he gets there. A good story transports the reader to a new place via experience. Not through arguments or facts, but through the illusion that life is taking place on the page. Not his life. Someone else’s. Your characters’ lives.

Author James N. Frey calls this the fictive dream, and that’s accurate. When we dream, we experience that as reality.

I still get those late-for-an-important-event dreams. When I was in school it was usually a test. Lately, it’s been a speaking engagement or a meeting with some important person relating to my work.

I’m late, and I realize it with about two minutes left, though I’m miles away and can only move in slow motion. And everything I do seems to create a further obstacle.
You see what’s happening? Conflict. Story. Experience.

I’ll leave it to the professionals to determine what this indicates about my psyche. But as writers, we need to understand that story is how readers dream. They demand it.
Plot and structure help them get into the dream and keep them there.

Agent Donald Maass, who has written a superb book called Writing the Breakout Novel, is of the opinion that story is what sells the book—not advertising, not a huge promotional budget—but story. And he believes the key to long-term success as a novelist is the ability to write book after book that builds up an audience. How? The power of story.

“What causes consumers to get excited about a work of fiction?” Maass asks. “Reviews? Few see them. Awards or nominations? Most folks are oblivious to them. Covers? Good ones can cause a consumer to lift a book from its shelf, but covers are only wrapping. Classy imprints? When was the last time you purchased a novel because of the logo on the spine? Big advances? Does the public know, let alone care? Agents with clout? Sad to say, that is not a cause of consumer excitement. In reality there is one reason, and one reason only, that readers get excited about a novel: great storytelling.”

Plot and structure help you reach that mark.

Plot Made Simple

In college I signed up for chess lessons from a fellow who promised I’d be able to compete with master players. He assured me he could teach the basic principles which, if applied, would give me a solid foundation for a good game against anyone. While I might not win, I’d certainly not look like a fool. From there it would be a matter of applying my talent (if I had any) to study and practice.

He was right. I learned to play a solid game of chess. And while I probably can’t go more than fifteen moves with Garry Kasparov—one of the world’s greatest chess players—at least he’d know he wasn’t playing a chucklehead. By applying the principles I learned, I can play a decent game of chess.

It’s the same with plotting the novel. There are a few basics that, if understood and applied, will help you come up with a solid plot every time. How far you go from there is, like most things, a matter of plain old hard work and practice.

After analyzing hundreds of plots I’ve developed a simple set of foundational principles called the LOCK system. LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. We’ll talk about each of these in detail later. For now, here’s a quick overview. Even if you get nothing else out of this book, a grip on the LOCK system will serve you well your whole writing career.

L Is for Lead

Imagine a guy on a New York City street corner with a Will Work for Food sign. Interesting? Not very. We’ve seen it many times before, and we wouldn’t stand and watch him for a minute.

But what if the guy was dressed in a tuxedo, and his sign said Will Tap Dance for Food? Hmm, a little more interesting. Maybe he has a yellow pad and the sign says, Will Write Novel for Food. I might buy him a hamburger to see what he comes up with.

The point here is that a strong plot starts with an interesting Lead character. In the best plots, that Lead is compelling, someone we have to watch throughout the course of the novel.

This does not mean the Lead has to be entirely sympathetic. This point hit me one day years ago when I was browsing the paperbacks at my local library.

I was looking at the new releases when I saw they’d brought in a new paperback version of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I’d never read it and didn’t know much about Dreiser, though I knew vaguely that his literary reputation has suffered in recent years.

But I also knew the novel was the basis of one of my all-time favorite movies, A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

So I checked it out, all 814 pages of it, not expecting to actually read the whole thing, but just to skim and see how similar it was to the movie.

Well, I had one of those wondrous reading experiences where I got sucked in. Big time. And as a budding novelist, I asked myself why. The book’s style is everything the critics said it was: ponderous, heavy-handed, at times sloppy. On page 156 is the sentence: “Gilbert chilled and bristled.” And on page 157: “Gilbert bristled and chilled.” I couldn’t make that up.

In fact, the New York Times once called An American Tragedy the “worst written great book ever.” But something makes it a great book, even though the Lead character, Clyde Griffiths, is not a nice guy. We first meet Clyde, the son of fundamentalist evangelists, at sixteen, and then watch as he descends to the point that he lets his pregnant lover drown.

Why does it work?

Because Clyde is compelling, though negative. Because Dreiser gets us into his head, there is a “car wreck” dynamic at work here. Just as people slow down to look at wreckage, we can’t resist seeing what happens to fully drawn human beings who make an unalterable mess of their lives. A skilled novelist can make us feel that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

(Note to readers: This book uses the simplest model—one Lead character involved in the main plot—for teaching purposes. Mastering this will enable you to approach increasingly complicated situations later, for example, a multi-viewpoint novel. See chapter eight for more on complex plots.)

O Is for Objective
Back to our Will Work for Food guy. What if he tossed down his sign, put a parachute on his back, and started climbing the Empire State Building?

Interest zooms. Why?

This character has an objective. A want. A desire.

Objective is the driving force of fiction. It generates forward motion and keeps the Lead from just sitting around.

An objective can take either of two forms: to GET something, or to GET AWAY from something.

  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is about a girl lost in the woods who desperately wants to get back to civilization.
  • In Jaws, Brody desperately wants to get the shark.
  • In Rose Madder, Rose wants to get away from her psycho husband.
  • In The Firm, Mitch McDeere wants to get away from the Mafia.

Solid plots have one and only one dominant objective for the Lead character. This forms the “story question”—will the Lead realize her objective?

You want readers to worry about the story question, so the objective has to be essential to the well-being of the Lead. If the Lead doesn’t get it (or get away from it), her life will take a tremendous hit for the worse.

Here are a few hints on making that objective crucial.

If the objective is related to staying alive, that always fits the bill. Most suspense novels have the threat of death hanging over the Lead from the start. Death can also hang over others—Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs is driven to stop Buffalo Bill before he kills another innocent victim.

Not all objectives have to involve death, however. The essential thing is that it is crucial to that Lead’s sense of well-being.

Consider Oscar in Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple. He is a very happy slob. Nothing pleases him more than smoky poker games in his apartment, and he not cleaning up afterward. He takes in his suicidal friend, Felix, out of compassion. But Felix is a clean nut. Eventually, this drives Oscar crazy. If he doesn’t get rid of Felix, his happy life as a slob will be ruined! The story works because Simon establishes just how important being sloppy is to Oscar’s happiness.

C Is for Confrontation

Now our human fly is halfway up the Empire State Building. We already know he’s interesting because he has an objective, and with a little imagination, you can think up a reason why this is crucial to his well-being.

Is there anything we can do to ratchet up the engrossment level?

Yes! New York City cops are trying to stop him! They have plans to nab him around floor 65. Worse yet, a mad sniper across Fifth Avenue has him in his sights.

Suddenly, things are a lot more interesting.

The reason is confrontation. Opposition from characters and outside forces brings your story fully to life. If your Lead moves toward his objective without anything in his way, we deprive readers of what they secretly want: worry. Readers want to fret about the Lead, keeping an intense emotional involvement all the way through the novel.

Some wise old scribe once put it this way: “Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.”

Throwing rocks means putting obstacles in your Lead’s way. Make things tough on him. Never let him off easy.

K Is for Knockout

I once asked an old sports writer why he thought boxing was so popular. He smacked his fist into his hand. “Pow!” he said, letting his arm fall like a sack of potatoes.

People watch boxing for the knockout, he explained. They’ll accept a decision, but they prefer to see one fighter kissing the canvas. What they hate is a draw. That doesn’t satisfy anyone.

Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knockout at the end. A literary novel can play with a bit more ambiguity. In either case, the ending must have knockout power.

A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak (assuming the reader decides to stick around until the end). But a weak ending will leave the reader with a feeling of disappointment, even if the book up to that point is strong.
So take your Lead through the journey toward her objective, and then send the opposition to the mat.

Our human fly can make it to the top victoriously, or fall tragically. He can crawl through a window that is a metaphor for a new life. The range of endings is massive.
Personally, I’d like to see him make it and write a best-selling novel about the experience.

Find out more about Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure.

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