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Let's talk about Plot Structure

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Jan 16, 2018.

  1. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Two of the best examples of plot structure are from traditional literature. One is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Updike, where you *know* where the story is headed, but it's more like staring at an on-coming train, unable to move. A second is Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara. There, too, the conclusion is telegraphed from the beginning, but in this case it's more like watching the train wreck. My metaphor here is a bit grim, but so are the books. Both authors do a brilliant job of embedding the ending in the beginning, folding it over and over throughout the book.

    As good as are the references provided by Heliotrope and that whole thread Michael cites, I've found it very helpful to take those patterns and templates and see how they are employed in actual stories. All that advice about read, read, read is all very fine, but informed reading beats uninformed reading every time.
     
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  3. Fluffypoodel

    Fluffypoodel Inkling

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  4. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I second this. Please take that post I made and apply it to stories or films that already exist. Read them and see where they used the beats (if they did) and why. Seriously, this is a major investment in time, but illuminating when you come out of it.
     
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Hedonometrics - absolutely my word of the week.
     
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  6. Gribba

    Gribba Troubadour

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    I approach writing much the same way as Night GardenerNight Gardener, plot structure comes into play mostly after the first draft and goes hand in hand with the editing.
    For me, plot structure, often hinders me when I begin a story. As I write the story can change and take an unexpected turn, so as I write the structure has to be an empty space and I will fit it in later to tell the story I want to tell.
     
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  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Back when Blockbuster was still open and I’d been studying screenwriting for a few years, the kid working behind the counter said: “Woah, dude, this is like your 666th rental.” That was just my rentals, not including what I had watched on cable/satellite. Of course, this may have hardened me on the notion of there being an original story to be told out there. I saw “original” the other day in a movie review and had a good laugh after checking out the movie’s plot.

    If you want to watch beats and structure, watch Lifetime movies. Most are highly structured and not even trying to hide it, and many barely pollute the main story with subplot.

     
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I have been thinking a lot about plot structure the last week or so because plot has revealed itself to be my main difficulty since I started to try getting into creating compelling stories. Every plot I've come up with always felt trite and irrelevant to me within a day.
    So I started to question whether making my stories centered around plot is actually strictly necessary. Can you have a compelling narrative that is carried primarily by fascinating experiences and encounters with colorful characters, instead of a protagonist struggling through obstacles to reach a goal? And looking at many of my favorite non-novel stories, few of them really have such an approach structured into three acts. All the really great ones instead have a protagonist going through a series of strange experiences and come out of it with a changed perspective.
    I've read about it early on in my first attempts at writing but had completely forgotten about it when I picked it up again after a break of a year or so. Subconsciously it must have stayed with me, because I came up with a vague concept that I wanted to try out that consists of "exploring a somewhat curious thing" followed by "discovering something dramatically more weird". Basically "shou-ten", with the ki and ketsu being kind of implied. But what I find really compelling about kishoutenketsu is the idea that the new element in the third part actually becomes critical in resolving the situation from the second part.

    I think a major part of my problem with plot is coming up with a compelling goal for the protagonist, as I have made the realization a while back that my ideal characters don't actually desire any external things. Instead, the struggle for riches, fame, and power are what I consider the inherent flaw of antagonists. That leaves you the default option of "stop the bad guys from doing a bad thing", but that's never really much to get excited about and regularly leads to the antagonist being the actual star of the work. Kishoutenketsu seems much more capable of supporting narratives about internal conflicts.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    This is going to vary greatly, but I do think your character needs a goal. The *plot* doesn't need the goal, the character does.

    It doesn't have to be complicated. In Goblins at the Gates, my MC's goal is simple: keep goblins from sacking the Roman Empire. Indeed, it's simpler than that: just stay alive. Secondary motivations fill that out. For example, he is driven to prove himself to those around him. Worse, he's driven to prove himself to his dead father. But those are layers I discovered long after I invented the initial goal of goblin horde.

    In Mad House the goal is also simple. Quinn-the-Sprite must unlock a library. That's complicated by a variety of factors, but the core idea is what drives the story.

    In A Child of Great Promise, the story is driven by a girl's need to find out the truth about her parents. Sure, wizards and monsters and gnomes and wagoneers, but the core is that.

    This thread is about plot structure, and pretty much any structure will work, but you must have characters and those characters must need something and be driven by something. Regardless of the structure, if you remove the character, the plot collapses. If the plot is still there, then that wasn't the Main Character, or you've invented a plot but you have not yet got a story.
     
  10. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Not quite sure if a character strictly has to be driven by something. Though I guess the protagonist I have already outlined already has such drives.

    When it comes to character, I think "goal" in the widest sense is primarily needed to allow the character to exercise agency. Things just happening is not enough, the character also has to react to them and make decisions how to deal with them. And for that to work the character needs to have at least preferences. This does not have to be a plan to achieve a goal. "I want to make it through this week alive" isn't much as goals go. But when you expand it to "I want to make it through this week alive, but I won't stand by while I see someone who needs my help" I think you have enough to make a solid story that consists only of the protagonist reacting to things that are happening without any kind of plan or destination in sight.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    By driven I did not mean to imply hounded or obsessed. Only that they have some core values that inform their actions, and that they have some specific action they want to perform. That, however, is secondary from how they relate to the plot.

    My current work is a reboot of A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The plot is simple: adventurers go to the center of the earth. If you read Verne's original, you'll find that's really about all there is to the story. I re-read it in preparation for this story and was very disappointed, having had fond memories of reading Verne as a youngster. But none of the characters drive the story, save for the Professor's monomaniacal belief that he will succeed. It's even less nuanced than the Disney movie.

    Right from the start, I knew I wanted characters with drive. I have my professor, little changed, but I also have the owner of a failing science magazine who mortgages everything she has to gamble on the professor's theory that there are civilizations at the earth's core. She is driven by a desire not only to save her magazine but to prove herself as a journalist. She will go after the story, no matter what.

    The arc of the story, then, is going to depend not only on the logistics of the plot, but also on the core needs and values of the central characters. There are a hundred ways to find the center of the earth. But *this* story takes its shape from the characters.

    To give an entirely different example, finding the source of the Nile River is merely an exercise in geography. But its discovery by Sir Richard Burton is an adventure story.
     
  12. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Speaking of which, I think travel stories have an inherent tendency to be relatively light on plot. Because of the nature of the activity, the narrative is going to have a lot of "and then" and ver little of "therefore". Many obstacles are encountered, but they mostly exist independent of each other.
    You can have some continuity by "a crocodile ate our guide while crossing the river, therefore we're getting lost in the desert", but the crocodile and the desert are not a single antagonist opposing the protagonists.
     
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