For all of us, eventually, it’s where we go after ‘the end’ but that’s not the plot I want to talk about here.
Plot in a story is about the events that lead from one to the next until ‘the end’ for the snippet of this [main] character’s life.
If the events don’t lead from one — which would be the cause — to the effect, it’s not meaningful. For story, everything must be meaningful. If it’s done well, it’s also resonant (that’s the bell ringing off in the distance, the sound you know so well and what it means, both to you and the story).
Plot isn’t structure. However, if the plot isn’t structured, it may as well be a straight line from A to B and how interesting would that be? No trees, no forks in the road, no choices or options, no decisions to be made, no wandering off the beaten path.
Structure works with plot to ensure the story has these interesting little elements. Okay, they’re big moments, the whole reason the story is told in this genre, with this plot archetype (oh, an archetype for plot?), with these characters in this setting and timeline.
Structure isn’t the signposts, although that’s where it is most easily visible. Structure is the point where plot makes a decision based on a previous event. The cause and effect flow-on means a decision must be made, an action taken, to continue on the journey.
Plot and structure go together to ensure the journey has a purpose.
The story itself is like the lives of each of us — we choose, and having chosen, walk the path. At least until the consequences of that choice show their signage and we make another choice.
Until the end.
What it all means is that no two writers will write the same story even if they have the same pattern/s, the same archetypes, the same end-state. We make the journey through our perspective, based on our history and knowledge, and our needs/desires.
We have archetypes for character. Lots of them. Everywhere. You see people using labels to identify themselves as one with an archetype. I’m an INFJ, I see (I don’t know what this means — okay, I do, but I don’t use these or Enneagrams, although I’ve seen them used for characterisation).
And we have plot archetypes. Heist, Family saga, Quest, Adventure, Rescue, Redemption, Revenge, Temptation, Greed (all the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues could be terms plot archetypes).
What the archetype patterns mean is the general shape of the thing. Like a pattern for a shirt. If I made it, the shirt would have sleeves of different colours, maybe mismatched buttons, and a collar with a tilt to the right. One front panel would not be the same as the other.
If you made a shirt from that pattern, it would not be the same as my shirt, but people would still recognise it as a shirt. It’s the pattern of the thing, not the thing itself. It’s your shirt, made by your hands, using your skills and rules.
The pattern isn’t inhibiting.
If you are afraid of the patterns for the hint of formula, I must point out the forms of poetry. Consider Haiku. The structure and pattern of the form is liberating to those who write within its folds. Some people are masters of the form, others are dabblers. I don’t even make it to dabbler stage, I just look on and sigh at the elegance of the form and what it creates in the observer.
So there you have it.
Plot is events that lead from a cause to a reaction and decision, thereby an effect. Cause and effect underlies all good stories, even if it’s as invisible as the sea-bed shape that makes waves on the shore.
What Plot is Not
Plot is not the plan, or the planning stage, or anything to do with writing down stuff before writing the story. Plot is the label for the events, rather than saying, repetitively, over and over and over: this happens, then because that happened, this happens, and then because that happened, this happens, etc., etc. Plot is an easier word to say that encompasses the story events as a whole, even if (when writing) we need to see each event as separate parts of the whole — they still need the purpose that leads the story forward, ever onward, until the story question is answered. (Story question? That’s for another post.)
The cause-effect paradigm goes by many names, some more useful than others. I like to use a term noted as Chain of Events to help me get past a difficult spot. It’s like a chain-link fence, rather than dominoes (dominoes is fine for a straight, single goal, chronological piece) because a chain link fence has many sections that all need to be held together to make the fence strong.
To make a story strong, each event must support and strengthen the overall story fence. If one piece fails or cracks, the fence loses its integrity. And so does a story. Leave something important out, and the story fails for the reader.
What do I mean? It’s the reaction part of the action/event that often seems to be missing. If this happens, why doesn’t the character acknowledge, or react, to it? That may be the most important question I ask as I do the first over-arching story edit. Every character must react as a real person would, or it isn’t believable (it’s not about genre, but the reader understanding the reactions and why they happen).
If this happens, how would this person see it, feel it, react to it? Why? Show how it does this, show how it causes them to take the next action that is the cause of the next effect.
Now I’ll go back to first-drafting the story for NaNo … slowly.