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.