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The truth about plot

He’s an award-winning creative writing professor. She’s a world-class writing coach. Together, they help novelists and memoir writers create standout stories, discuss the benefits of plotting versus pantsing, and reveal surefire ways to avoid common pitfalls and plot fails.

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Jamie Morris is a writing coach, story guru, and co-author of Plotting Your Novel With the Plot Clock who brings decades of experience to early-career novelists and memoir writers. Her process-focused approach helps clients clarify goals, gain confidence, break through blocks, and finish drafts that are ready to pitch. Visit her at voiceheartvision.com.

A frequent contributor to The Writer, Ryan G. Van Cleave directs the creative writing program at Ringling College of Art and Design. He’s also the author of 20+ books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies, Creativity: A Reader for Writers, and The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 Hours and Sell Your Book. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & OnlyPictureBooks.com.

 

Van Cleave: What’s the No. 1 question you get about plot?

Morris: It’s probably, “Where do I start my story?”

Van Cleave: I get that a ton. And my answer is this – as close to the inciting action as possible. If I don’t say that, students tend to stick an entire dissertation of background material on the front end, and that’s simply not an effective way to hook readers.

Morris: I like to see writers start a little bit before the first big plot point, which I call the “binding point.” That’s the moment the character commits (irrevocably – yikes!) to whatever the story has in store for them. This gives readers a chance to connect to the character before the wild ride commences but avoids the background dissertation you’re talking about.

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Van Cleave: That sounds a good bit like the Hero’s Journey, the moment when the hero crosses the threshold. Those thresholds tend to be one-way doors.

Morris: Yes, exactly!

Van Cleave: Another question that’s rarely asked but needs to be addressed is this – what IS plot? I know you’ve got your own answer, but this is what I tell my classes: 

“Plot” is a series of events that are deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. That means both what to include and what NOT to include. This is as opposed to the generic term “story,” which I explain as a series of events told in their chronological order.

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Morris: While I call the chronological version “plot” and the deliberately arranged version “structure,” we’re in complete agreement. Acknowledging these two ways of thinking about a story opens up an interesting array of possibilities for the writer.

Van Cleave: It’s all about making creative choices that result in the story being more effective. Both the short story “Memento” and the film of the same name work backward, and they’re terrific. And plenty of stories start near the finish line but leave us there in a cliffhanger, and then go back to the beginning to show how we get there. Chronology is a popular choice, sure, but it’s not the only “correct” one.

Morris: For me, it’s an issue of process vs. ultimate product. If we start with the chronological approach, it’s easier (for me, anyway) to make sure the tensions that keep the story moving forward are in place. When those points of tension are established, I can rearrange events for the best dramatic effect.

Which brings us to the No. 2 question I get asked: should the writer plot it or pants it? I’m a fan of plotting – developing a dynamic outline first – then diving into draft mode.

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How about you?

Van Cleave: It depends on who’s asking and what I think they need to hear, LOL.

If you’re OK with throwing away a lot of pages, pantsing is a fine option. It’s just not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be.

I always write some level of outline. It might be one or two sentences per chapter, or it might be more. I have PLENTY of writer-pals who write outlines so exquisite and rich that if any of my friends – God forbid! – were stolen by aliens, I could take their outline and write their book in a way that’s close to what they imagined.

I need room (narratively speaking). But I don’t recommend this tactic for early-career writers. If you’re OK with throwing away a lot of pages, pantsing is a fine option. It’s just not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be.

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Morris: Agreed.

Van Cleave: What if you get a writer who insists they want to write a story without plot?

Morris: I cry. But very quietly, so they don’t hear me.

Van Cleave: I thought I was the only one.

Morris: Sometimes an aspiring novelist comes to me with a Big Idea – a philosophical or psychological concept. Great! But if that concept isn’t hooked to dynamic events and a character’s dramatic change (hello, plot!), it’s time to rethink things.

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Honestly, it might be that they actually want to write nonfiction – maybe a self-help book or a journalistic exploration of a topic. In those cases, plot’s no issue. But if they want to write a story based on their idea, it’s time to reach into the narrative toolbox and pull out a plot.

And, of course, excellent, plot-driven storytelling is a great way to convey a Big Idea.

Van Cleave: It sure is. Do you ever run across writers who aspire to create novels along the lines of experimental French films (aka non-narrative “narratives”)?

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Morris: Yes! While that kind of experimentation can work with short fiction, it becomes far more problematic when a novelist just want to explore the internal workings of their main character. They might, say, put their character through an intensive course of therapy – thinking that confining most of the “action” to the therapy room shows enough character development to keep a reader on the edge of their seat.

Van Cleave: Not this reader, I’m afraid.

I’m not saying characters can’t consult with a therapist, just that typically, in a good plot, internal processes are the result of external events, not a substitute for them.

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Morris: Exactly! Instead, they’d do well to show the character struggling in real-world (non-therapeutic) relationships and situations. For instance, if your character is lacking motivation, send ’em to boot camp – perhaps literally. Once the character’s engaged with a tough situation, raise the stakes (terrible drill sergeant; angry bunkmate; sniper on the loose). This will push the character toward change in a far more compelling way than time spent discussing issues on a therapist’s couch.

I’m not saying characters can’t consult with a therapist, just that typically, in a good plot, internal processes are the result of external events, not a substitute for them. (Heck, give your boot-camp inductee a good reason to consult with the army psychiatrist. Then make sure that consultation results in even more conflict outside the psychiatrist’s office.) 

And you? What do you say to a plot-resistant writer? 

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Van Cleave: Hah. I tell them to go for it, but don’t expect a large audience to read it. After a lifetime of taking in stories (TV, films, books, etc.), people have internalized what stories tend to do. If a story doesn’t teach you, entertain you, and/or make you feel something, well, there are oodles of other stories available at the click of a button these days that will do one or more of those things.

Morris: Yeah. A good, solid plot makes two things happen: Importantly, it engages readers. But before it ever gets into the hands of a reader, it gives the writer a roadmap to help their character fulfill their journey.

If the heart of the story is the character’s journey – and that journey is more about the change the character needs to make than any external goal – then the plot (“story events,” by my definition) is the device the writer uses to force the character to keep going when that character really would like to just quit.

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Van Cleave: I’m a fan of how Robert Olen Butler calls that character drive “yearning.” It’s so much more than wanting. It’s more potent, even, than “need.”

Morris: I never heard that before, but it’s beautiful and spot on.

Van Cleave: Lack of yearning is a common issue I see in memoir manuscripts. And the plot and character issues novelists encounter are the same ones memoirists face, too.

Morris: Absolutely. While memoirists don’t have to manufacture events like novelists do, they do have to present the events they’ve lived through in a dramatic way.

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When I work with memoir writers, we look at their life in a “literary” way. With this approach, they’re able to see themselves as a character and recognize the “plot points” that make up their life.

Van Cleave: I do that, too. It’s far harder than one might imagine to see your life as a story in this way.

Morris: I’ll tell you, I’m amazed time and time again at how perfectly the lives we actually lead lend themselves to dramatic, plot-centric storytelling.

Van Cleave: We’ve danced around this a bit, I think, so let me just ask this common question: Is plot the same as character arc?

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Morris: No! But yes!

Character arc is the point of the story (for the most part), but a character involved only in some internal self-development process doesn’t make for good story. Plot, on the other hand, does. And when plot is used (as it should be) to move the character forward, then the two – plot and character arc – are so closely entwined, it’s difficult to say where one starts and the other ends.

Van Cleave: I’m always careful what I say in a classroom since many students take it as gospel. But this is one where I make a firm claim. I’m with screenwriting guru Robert McKee here: “We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure.”

Morris: I love that we both have tied character inextricably with our ideas of plot. I believe Mr. McKee would approve.

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So, do we think the same on everything?

Van Cleave: On a lot of things, sure. But here’s a key difference between a writing professor and a writing coach. I only get one semester – 15 meetings – to reach a student writer, so I use a scattershot approach. I bring in a lot of perspectives like McKee, sure, as well as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, Donald Maass’s The Breakout Novelist, or Ansen Dibell’s fine book simply entitled Plot. You never know what’ll hit just right for someone.

Morris: That’s a reality with writing coaches, too. Sometimes you’re the perfect coach for someone, and yet the same ideas, anecdotes, and references work less well for others.

Like you, I have a go-to arsenal, including Save the Cat and Jessica Brody’s follow-up, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. And for deep-diving readers, I recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

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Making things bad for your character – and then making them worse – is a strategy that’s likely to lead to a dynamic (if painful) plot.

Van Cleave: As great as it is to say read this or read that, I like actionables. What’s a specific tip that helps writers handle plot more effectively?

Morris: Get your character in trouble. Over and over again.

Basically, making things bad for your character – and then making them worse – is a strategy that’s likely to lead to a dynamic (if painful) plot. So dig deep and toss all the manure at your character your story will bear. And then they can make the change the story has been pushing them toward. 

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Van Cleave: We’re taught again and again to resist/avoid conflict in our real lives so much that many find it hard to create meaningful conflict on the page. It HAS to be there, and it HAS to escalate.

Period. Full stop.

Morris: Love it!

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Van Cleave: This was a hoot. Let’s do it again sometime.

Morris: Same venue, different issue?

Van Cleave: Next time, we’ll tackle character.

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