by Bob Kruger
What is a plot? Honestly, I dont really know, so at best I can just approach a definition. Reading this exercise of mine will not help you much in writing a story I dont believe in writing stories according to some template but it might help you correct a story thats gone wrong. Samuel R. Delany told our Clarion West class that plot is an effect of several story elements, chief among them being character. If even he couldn't come up with a real definition, I don't feel too bad.
The classic adventure plot structure involves a character who has, or shortly acquires, a goal; various forces impede the character but he or she makes progress until the point of climax where he or she is both closest to the goal and most keenly opposed. The character then succeeds or fails, and then the story wraps up either quickly or at length with the coda known as the denouement. (Several years back, walking out of the theater after the overlong action movie The Saint, the guy Id watched it with, writer and editor John Tynes, said, They didnt get that denouement means what happens after the story is over.) However, the classic plot graph of peaking tension and falling denouement is only part of the picture and doesnt even apply to many kinds of plots. More fundamental to any story is the character arc. For any plot to work it must be accompanied and supported by at least one of these.
In the classic adventure plot, the character starts with some kind of baseline showing what the character wants out of life and sketching the character's general personality. An inciting event then launches the character into the meat of the storymaybe, but not necessarily, toward some clear goal. At some point the character must make a major decision that shows what he or she is really made of; if there's a goal, the decision determines whether the character reaches it. Ive been told that the character undergoes a change, but thats not right. The character is merely tested out, and a hidden aspect of his or her personality is revealed. Ive never seen it put this way before but I think there are two main kinds of arcs, which Ill call the polar arc and the dialectical arc, just for the hell of it. (I don't like "polar" arc; it sounds like something involving snowy waste; so feel free to suggest a better name.)
The polar arc has two distinct poles: the characters persona at the beginning of the story and a new one at the end. A classic example is the timid guy who finds his courage to become a hero. The character may fail to reach the opposite pole, as in most tragedies, but still approaches it.
The dialectical arc introduces the character after he or she has seemingly made a polar shift; however, instead of a real shift into self-awareness, the character has really just made a reaction-formation against an earlier persona, and the character will have to explore that earlier attitude again and emerge with a persona that synthesizes the old and the new. For example, in the movie Unforgiven, Eastwoods character Bill Munny begins the story as a reformed badass, an erstwhile hard-drinking man of violence who found religion and the love of a good woman. By storys end, Munny decides to confront evil by temporarily reclaiming his violent nature. Casablanca "plots" another dialectical arc in the character of Rick Blaine. Once an idealistic freedom fighter, Rick has been heartlessly abandoned – or so he thinks – by the woman who represented all his idealism, and now as the owner of a bar in Casablanca, hes retreated into a reactionary cynical attitude. It turns out that Ilsa left him in Paris to return to Victor Laszlo, the important, freedom-fighter husband she thought was dead. To protect Laszlo, she had to make a clean break with Rick, without explanation. When she and Laszlo unexpectedly end up in Casablanca, she makes the decision to offer Rick her unconditional love, even though it may doom both her and her husband. When Rick learns not only that Ilsa left him for a good reason but, more importantly, suffered as much as he for her decision to leave, he regains his idealism, and proves it in his decision to send Ilsa back to Laszlo. (There are two arcs that reinforce each other here, but Ricks is the main one. His depends on hers, but it is up to him to resolve both arcs.)
Any long story that lacks a well-defined and meaningful character arc may be in trouble. If your story is episodic and plods from one situation to the next without being meaningfully connected together, the arc is a good place to look for a fix. If your main arc is really just a superficial change in the character, where the character makes an easy reaction to his or her earlier position, you may look for dialectical possibilities and moving some of the characters original persona into backstory, that is, to a point before the story begins. (If you're a novice and feel moved to relate backstory through flashbacks, resist. There are many other, more subtle ways to communicate what the character used to be like before the events of the story.)
Last year, a police officer from Spokane sent me a novel based on his experiences in the force. He used a lot of technical detail effectively to establish realistic situations and dramatize the difficult, quick judgments good cops make when applying the law to achieve justice. He had an overarching plot, too, but he did not have the character arcs necessary to create a cohesive story. The novel wasnt publishable in the form I saw it in, but he could fix it to be, and I hope he does. I felt like I learned something from it, and it was the first long submission Ive read clear through even knowing from the outset that I probably couldnt publish it.*
Okay, next time will be about the epic plot...
*He got back to me after a year to say that he revised the book, Under a Raging Moon, and found a publisher. Congrats, Frank!