a few short story tips: plot

I have a love-hate relationship with plot. I hate it, it hates me, but convention dictates that we love each other.

For me, I was content writing stories where the only “plot” that happens is inside a character’s head. My novel, Harbinger, was such a story. And after my writing teacher last year told me that my novel didn’t have plot, I was of course, devastated.

Eventually, I did learn how to write a story with plot, but it took a lot of work and conscious decisions to not follow my instincts. I realize however, that some would argue that one should write what one wants to write, and break the rules one wants to break. And while I partially agree with that statement, I will say this, very overused phrase: You must learn the rules first to break them.

So onto the real tips:

There are a lot of way of thinking about plot and how plot works, the most conventional one being perhaps the three act hero’s journey. You have your ordinary world, the inciting incident, the call to action … and eventually ending with the return. You’ve probably heard of this too many times to want to hear it again.

There are other, more unconventional ways of thinking about plot, my favorite being the “connection-disconnection” model. Some literary critic once said that all good stories are about connection-disconnection on a higher level. Take the classic Romeo and Juliet for example. As the play opens, there is a disconnection between the Montague and Capulet families, a disconnection that is eventually healed by Romeo and Juliet’s connection (and of course, untimely death). The reason why this perception of plot is my favorite is that it confirms that belief in me that it is possible to form genuine connections with people, revealing the sentimental fool part of myself, yet again.

Another way of thinking about plot is with the inverted check mark.

Story Form as an Inverted Check Mark. Conflict. Complications. (includes narrative hook and rising action) Crisis (includes climax) Resolution. Falling Action. Source: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (6th ed.)

I think this one’s rather self-explanatory.

For the third and last way of thinking about plot, I’m going to lead with a small reference to Harry Potter. In the first Harry Potter movie (I’m not quite sure whether this line was in the book), Voldemort tells Harry that “there is no good or evil. There is only power”, a statement to be read in the most ominous and egoistical tone you can imagine. However, this falls into the lines of the third plot device – power struggle.

In this model, we think about every action a character makes as an attempt to take control, or be in power. Life is a struggle to be at the top and sometimes that struggle doesn’t need to be dramatic, like stabbing someone in the gut. The best example I can think about that employs this model is Joyce Carol Oates’ story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.

I find it extremely restrictive to give a definite answer to “how do you plot”, especially for someone like me, so having these different models of plot definitely helped me, and I hope that it’ll help you too.

2 thoughts on “a few short story tips: plot

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