Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes on plot

Plot is motivated action. The hero is driven by a purpose.

“Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Otherwise, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history—that’s a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, abortion, terrorism, etc.—is more important than the people it happens to.

Some famous editor said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

One avoids case histories by writing about particular people. Real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story, or the author’s message.

The queen died and the king died.  That’s reportage, not story (no drama).
The queen died and the king died of grief.  That’s story.

So ask yourself, before you begin writing:

  • Who hurts? ----  that’s the protagonist. (If several characters are hurting—say, a group of POWs, who hurts the most, who changes the most, who has the most opportunity to do something about the situation?)
  • Why? -----------   that’s the conflict
  • What does she do about it? -- That’s the plot—or motivated action. In other words, the hero doing something to cope with conflict creates plot. Slam-bang action for its own sake is not conflict. In fact, as a rule of thumb, an inner conflict will carry a story farther than an outer conflict.

Science fiction and fantasy plots: When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering. Just as in real life, it’s not what’s planned and predicted, it’s all the unanticipated stuff that happens that makes it a fascinating ride.

“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The Wright Brothers flew in 1904. They were in the air for 12 seconds, and flew less than the wing span of a 747. In 1969—a mere 65 years later—Americans stepped forth on another celestial object, a different world.

Isaac Asimov: “Science fiction tends to exaggerate developments in the short-term and underestimate changes in the long-term.” 1950s Popular Science magazine. No one anticipated the personal computer or the Internet. No one anticipated nanotech.

Examples of Plots:

  • The Person Who Learns Better. A strongly held idea or principle turns out to be wrong.
  • Girl Meets Boy. Someone gets emotionally involved with someone or something else.
  • The Little Tailor. A character goes through a change in status and must cope with it.

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