Thursday, May 5, 2011

thoughts on plots

This afternoon, INTERN is pondering plots. Particularly, she is thinking about how funny it is (and how perplexing) that you can write an entire novel (or even several drafts of a novel) and only realize at the very end that—oops!—you forgot to give your story a plot.

Before INTERN delves into this conundrum, an anecdote. Perhaps two:

INTERN was eighteen or nineteen years old. She had just finished writing a "novel" (in quotation marks for reasons that will soon become apparent) and was flogging spiral-bound copies of it for ten dollars a pop on a street corner in downtown Vancouver, wearing her then-standard uniform of hiking boots, aviator sunglasses and a blue polka-dot dress*. Within a few minutes, she had sold three copies and made a small fortune in ten-dollar bills. She stuffed the cash in her purse and made a swift getaway on her bicycle.

A few days later, she got an e-mail from the editor of a small press in Vancouver. He had read the manuscript and enjoyed the writing style. “If it only had a plot,” he wrote, “I would seriously consider publishing it.”

This e-mail knocked around in INTERN’s teenaged brain like a handful of shiny but mystifying foreign currency. “A plot,” mused INTERN, knitting her formidable unibrow. “A plot.”

At the time, this notion of having a plot was a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma. INTERN put the project aside and spent the next few years writing experimental poetry and the requisite number of failed semi-autobiographical novel sketches (plotless, of course) that fizzled out after a chapter or two, never to be heard from again.

A little while ago, INTERN’s friend who had recently completed an MFA program sent her his novel manuscript. After reading it, she found herself telling him the same thing as the small press editor told her so many years ago: “The writing is beautiful—now, if only it had a plot!”

His response (more or less): “But it does have a plot! My character gets a job at a restaurant. Then she gets in a car crash. Then she stares at an ancient redwood tree and has deep realizations about the fickleness of human nature.”

All of which is a long and convoluted way of getting to INTERN’s point in writing this post: What is a plot, anyway? How can you tell if you have one or not? And how can a book that has lots of events—even lots of action—still be said to be lacking a plot?


As far as INTERN can tell, plot involves some combination of the following elements:

Cause and Effect: What happens in Chapter 3 has an effect on what happens in Chapter 10. That car crash on page 78 doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it creates ripples throughout the story, ripples that need to be resolved in a satisfying way.

A sense of interrelatedness: Characters and events are connected in meaningful, intriguing, and satisfying ways. If you drew a diagram of the connections between your characters, it would look like a dense web (everybody has some kind of connection to everybody else) not a snowflake (the main character is connected to a bunch of completely unrelated characters). That wise old barback we meet in Ch. 1 doesn’t drop off the map the minute she’s delivered her big speech—instead, we discover that her son died in the same car crash as the narrator’s sister.

Similarly, that transcendent experience under the redwood tree doesn’t stick out like an overdetermined thumb—it’s the mirror image of another scene that takes place under a monkeypuzzle sapling, and part of a greater theme that gets developed at an even pace throughout the novel.

Extended Conflict: The MC has an overarching goal or problem that takes a whole novel to resolve.

Yes, you have a car crash and a fight scene and a breakup, but unless these events are interconnected parts of a larger goal, you don’t have a plot—you have a series of events.

This is where a lot of manuscripts fail (including INTERN’s rogue street-vendor “novel”). It’s like being taken for a long, aimless drive and having various landmarks pointed out to you. The historical houses and whatnot are interesting at first, but eventually you get restless and want a burrito.

On the other hand, imagine your karate master has 24 hours to live and you need to drive across the country to receive her final words of wisdom before she dies. Suddenly, we’re going somewhere. The detours matter. If we stop at all, we’re stopping for a damn good reason. And you can quite your whining about that burrito.

Other Stuff: INTERN doesn’t want to get into structural stuff (rising action, climax, denouement etc.) because there are a zillion different ways of writing a great plot and they don’t all follow a classic pattern. Suffice to say that a plot generally involves a series of conscious decisions on the author’s part—the order of events (and the events themselves) are carefully titrated to achieve maximum emotional impact and intellectual satisfaction.

This is why “autobiographical” novels about your college road trip are so hard to pull off—because real-life events don’t necessarily happen in such a way as to deliver the kind of emotional/intellectual impact or sense of interrelatedness that novels require in order to be satisfying. Something to think about next time you feel like writing a bestseller about your unforgettable spring break in Tijuana.


INTERN is certain that she hasn’t taken every element of Good Plotmaking into account, and she hopes that you, her beloved reader- and writer-friends, will help fill in the gaps in the comments. Have you ever realized your novel was lacking a plot? And how did you go about teaching yourself to create one?

*Yes, she looked insane. People probably crossed to the other side of the street to avoid her. But INTERN wonders with some wistfulness if she will ever have the gleeful self-confidence required to pull such a stunt again.

PS: A parcel of Tumultuous Life Events have swooped in on INTERN and Techie Boyfriend all at once (novel revisions, rattlesnakes, and impending hobo-ness being only the tip of the iceberg) so posting will be erratic and/or increasingly deranged for a while until things get a little more settled. Rest assured that INTERN will check in whenever possible and will avoid sleeping in WalMart parking lots unless strictly necessary.


  1. Thank you for this.
    I liked the way you put it in "web and snowflake" terms. Makes sense. Now to just find that balance, interconnecting characters without seeming too far-fetched.

    BTW: Target parking lots are much better than Wal-Marts, if you MUST squat. Their carts are SOOOO much more comfortable.

  2. Every time someone talks about plot I start thinking about Die Hard. Every character has a purpose -- every character takes action -- every character does something to change the overall narrative.

    Which means the audience always has a stake in the characters, because any character can change what happens next.

    I've tried to write something like that and it is also very HARD.

  3. Writing without a plot is like not wearing underwear. You think you can get away with it, but eventually someone notices and it gets you in trouble ;-)

  4. I was not as classy when I peddled my first novel, no boots. But I did have a plot except the characters diluted the drama with niceness. Fortunately I've learned to be evil.

  5. Hmmm. My two cents? I think that most successful novels have two simultaneous plots. An internal one, which is usually the emotional plot--it has a lot to do with character arc and growth--and the external one, which is more about action and the forward momentum of the story. You don't want those two plots to be the same. Connected, yes. But if the internal and external plots are too much the same, or overlap too much, the story usually feels a bit two-dimensional or flat or, in publishing-speak, "slight." In a three-dimensional story, though, the internal and external plots tend to run parallel to one another, but not on top of one another; they just occasionally intersect. And sometimes it's the moments where they intersect that the story rises above the specifics of any one part of the story to feel most universal--internal and external plot adding up to say something resonant in a one-two punch kinda way. Does that make sense?

    Love the image of Small Intern peddling her book, btw. And perhaps there's a market on Ebay for rattlesnake venom? (Good luck w/ all the chaos!)

  6. thanks! Before I started writing, I never really imagined that you could tell a story without a plot. My 2nd MS doesn't have one, and I didn't even notice until I read a book that was just like it- You know the type, first book in an epic quest series and 95% of the book is dedicated to introducing all the characters and walking around the setting you can find out the rules and relationships.

  7. I think plots require justice.

    In any plot a moral order is upset and restored, even if the order's founding principle is that the universe is without morality or justice.

    I'm recalling Steinbeck's line from East of Eden: "we have only one story."

  8. Yes indeed! So easy for the aspiring novelist to let plot fall by the wayside. I actually took a session on plot structure at a conference last weekend and just blogged about it. Great minds think...about plot.

  9. Yes! I think EM Forster put it this way: "The King died and then the Queen died" is a story. "The King died and then the Queen died of grief" is a plot.

  10. THANK YOU!!! plots and subplots are the story, and the characters are what make you care.