Write a Book – #4 Just what is plot, anyway?

15 Apr

To prepare yourself for doing something constructive for your completed manuscript – and you WILL do something with it, will you not? – here are several easy exercises that will also help you develop your story. This column will be mostly about fiction. Non-fiction will be next month’s installment of the Write a Book series.

Last month, we talked about creating characters. Now comes plot, perhaps the third most important element of your book. First and foremost, of course, is the writing. If it isn’t done well enough to engage the reader, keeping and holding his or her attention, characters and plot will be of little help to you.

Plot is a very misunderstood part of the work that goes into producing a book. But really, it’s quite simple. First of all, the plot determines exactly what kind of book you are writing. So, it’s very important for you to have a good grip on your plot, right from the beginning.

Almost every work of fiction falls into either of two categories: literary or genre.  Literary fiction is a catch-all category, that was once the only sort of fiction published. With the rise of genre fiction during the 20th Century, there is now a noticeable distinction between the two categories. True literary fiction is allowed to ignore any ‘rules’ established by the various genres. The main consideration is that it doesn’t really have to have a specific plot or even an ‘ending’.

Genre fiction is much more strict, although with the advent of e-books, there are a good many books with plot mish-moshes possible – and available. If you can think of it, someone has probably already written it! The mash-up that is, not your own story.

In a romance, the two main protagonists who have been sparring throughout the entire book, will have at least established their relationship as a ‘happy ever after’ or a ‘firmly committed to each other’ finish. In a mystery, the criminal must be either eliminated or brought to justice. Each genre has its own rules, and you ignore them at your peril. Quite simply, you won’t be published by any publisher who specializes in that genre.

So, now then – do you know when the action described in your story took place? It’s especially important to have any historical data be as accurate as possible. If you’re not doing that, then re-think your genre. Maybe it’s really alternate universe or fantasy, or maybe even steam-punk?

There is a wonderful resource book, titled What Happened When. I bought a used copy at a library book sale some years ago, and find it invaluable. Of course, you can also find such information on the web, but do be sure of the validity of the research before you quote it, or build your story around it. Some sites are not overly careful of the accuracy of their content. This book itemizes not only by year (from about 1000 AD to the present) but by categories of events: medicine, military, political, religion, music, etc.

Plot. What is plot? It’s what happens when and how and why, and usually to whom!  And then – what happens next?

There are a few rather simplistic definitions of this. For example, the long-time romance novel plot was: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. In this case, the ‘get’ meant a marriage was on the very near horizon. In the last few years, however, that ‘get’ has found another meaning. The couple doesn’t necessarily have to be heading for a wedding, but they will definitely be making a commitment to each other. And no, in this case ‘wedding’ and ‘commitment’ are not synonyms.

In a mystery, someone does something they shouldn’t have done, but they will get caught, and they had better suffer punishment for their dirty deed.  And of course, the detective—whether professional or amateur—will seriously consider those three indicators of guilt: motive, means and opportunity.

I’m not overly sure about science fiction or fantasy, but I think perhaps the plot for these books depend almost entirely on the writer’s imagination. More so than the other genres, that is.

All that means is—there is more than one way to write a book. You won’t know what your best way is, until you try. You might make a list of things you mean to incorporate into your story, and then sit down to write it. In my mind, characters are more important than plot, because if you don’t know your characters all that well, they may well refuse to do what you think they should. If that happens, you could all too easily end up with an incomplete book taking up space in your computer or your desk drawer. It might take years for you to figure out the right solution, but I’ll bet you’d give in before your characters do!

If you want to be really sure of your plot, here’s that dandy exercise mentioned at the beginning of this post. First, explain the plot of your story in ONE sentence! Yes, one only. Next, enlarge that sentence to a paragraph, and then to a full page. By the time you have completed all three descriptions, you should have a pretty good idea of who’s who, and how they figure into the plot. Combine with the characters from the last blog, and away you go!

Happy writing!  If you have comments or questions, please write to me:  bookmechanicATgmail.com

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One Response to “Write a Book – #4 Just what is plot, anyway?”

  1. Betty Kaiser April 15, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    I liked this advice esp. the last paragraph.

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