The Art of Plotting, Part I – The Tall Tale

Aight.  We’ve established that I have no idea what I’m doing here, right?  Right.  Okay, let’s move on.

So ….

What makes up a plot?

This isn’t the kind of lecture where I say a plot has elements A, B, and C.  I’d rather say that these are some anecdotes I’ve learned about plotting over my writing time.  For what they are worth, these are just my experiences and your mileage may vary.  On the other hand, who’s to say I am not great and smart and right about this?

(Muse:  If you were, you would have sold more books by now.)

Uhm, yes, very well.  Anyway, here we go:

A story has a beginning, middle, and end:  See my previous post for rantings about baby shoes.  In the movie Bull Durham, the world-weary but seasoned player tells the young upstart, "You have fungus on your shower shoes.  When you win 20 games in The Show [the major leagues], you can have fungus on your shower shoes and the press will say you’re colorful.  Until then, it just means you’re a slob."  None of us are Hemingway yet.  When we are filthy rich from writing (as opposed to just filthy-minded), we can write whatever we want and call it a story.  Until then, we should make sure it has a clearly-defined start and finish.

Originality is good; consistency is more important:  By that, I mean, "consistency within the established rules of that universe."  Things happening for no reason, or no apparent reason, are very frustrating to the reader.  If suddenly, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields (in front of Minas Tirith, in Return of the King) , half a dozen A-10s had appeared over the field and strafed the orcs, most people would have been scratching their heads, thinking, "WTF?"  Yes, it would have been original.  It would have made no sense in the context of the story.  This applies to characters, too.  Why do characters suddenly act out of character – or out of line with their established abilities?  This is so common that the TV Tropes site has a section developed to it:  New Powers as the Plot Demands.  Have serfs been forbidden to own weapons for centuries?  Then why does the farmboy protagonist show a sudden mastership of a heavy bladed weapon?  I’m not saying these things can’t happen – but they need to happen for a reason that is consistent in the framework of the story.  My underlying point is that original doesn’t automatically mean good; after all, eight-legged goats are pretty rare, but aside from a few fetishists, no one is clamoring for them.  Make sure your plot events make sense in context.

Setting flavors the plot, not vice versa:  I think a lot of authors make the mistake of saying, "Well, I want my plot to be x, so setting doesn’t matter, I’ll just tie it in afterwards."  On the contrary, brother.  Per my previous point, I think setting is integral to the plot and exerts a great deal of influence.  The Star Wars movies are often called a space opera.  But how much sense would the epic battle have been at the end of Episode IV if it had been several dozen log rafts sallying out to face down an aircraft carrier?  It would necessitate a substantial change to the ending of the story.  Better yet, take Sleepless in Seattle and move it to the Middle Ages.  By the time Tom Hanks’s second message – via horse, I guess – reached Meg Ryan, she would have been married off to some feudal lord and would be on her second child.  I’ve read a lot of submission guidelines for spec fiction.  They almost always say the speculative elements need to be essential to the plot – i.e., "If I can extract the speculative elements without changing the story, it’s not speculative," is a common phrasing.  Folks are not taking their setting into account.

Conflict is not plot; meaningful conflict is:  Okay, so the hero gets in a fight with three clods and beats them all.  Then What Happened?  Were they ancient enemies?  Does their beat-down/death mean something to the antagonist?  Does the character feel remorse?  Slip a little towards the dark side because of it?  Is there *any* character advancement?  Is there *any* plot advancement?  Does anyone care?  That’s what I’m getting at; when there is conflict, it should be for a reason.  Writing conflict is easy.  And on that note, even though I am certain offender, blow-by-blow fight scenes are best used sparingly – and the more of them there are, the less meaningful they become.  I also think this true of, uhm, blow-by-blow scene description for that other subject.  (That pun was fully intentional.  "And visions of smut danced through their heads….")  The conflict doesn’t have to be driven by the protagonist, either.  Bad guys do bad things for various reasons, but I’ll cover that in a later installment.  Bottom line:  make the struggle mean something to someone other than the author’s bloodlust or just regular lust.

Don’t lose yourself in the message:  I’m closer to Ayn Rand’s political view than many in the spec fiction reading sphere.  But Atlas Shrugged is all but unreadable because it devolves into lengthy diatribes based on the author’s viewpoints.  Heinlein gets close in places.  And lest something think I am picking only on my conservative homies, Pullman’s anti-Catholic rants leap off the page in the Dark Materials series.  And some people thought A Handmaid’s Tale was subtle.  I thought it was overbearing and yawn-inducing.

(Muse:  Get to the damn point, you put half your audience asleep and you can’t afford to lose two readers!)

My point is this:  if you want to involve politics, be subtle.  Don’t put your characters on a soapbox; let the reader finish, sit back and digest the tale and figure out for themselves what message was intended.  I don’t think a message is worth wrecking the plot over.  I mean, if you want to write about politics, there are lots of political journals.  I read newspapers, news websites, and said journals when I want to deal with the real world.  I don’t mind some politics in my fiction but it should be secondary.


Okay, is everyone worn out?  Me too.  But I will be back in a few days with the next installment.  Hopefully, y’all will tune in again.

If not, please do something fun with your time.



2 thoughts on “The Art of Plotting, Part I – The Tall Tale

  1. You know…

    I actually quite liked Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t really agree with it, but I thought it was well written. Not really sure why it’s not in the science fiction shelf between 1984 and Brave New World, but there you are. Oddly, His Dark Materials was too diatribey for me, but I think mainly because I went into Atlas Shrugged expecting a political book and I went into His Dark Materials expecting a rollicking fun adventure with talking polar bears (and, to be fair, I had no reason at all to stop expecting it until well into the second book).

    I suppose that’s not technically a useful response. Carry on, I guess 🙂


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