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Jessica
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Plot

[ Edited ]

Story Defined

Ideas lead to a world from which characters and a story emerge. From there, you must begin developing a plot.

But let's make an important distinction between Plot and Story. Story is the overall tale. What is this piece of fiction about? The answer to this question is your story.

In "Balanced Ecology" by James H. Schmitz (The Norton Book of Science Fiction, p.98) a peaceable farming family is threatened by people who want to take over their world and exploit it; only the children and their "pets" are capable of saving their land, family, and way of life.

In "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things" by Karen Joy Fowler (The Norton Book of Science Fiction, p.580) a woman uses a memory technique to try to come to terms with a dead lover, but the technique turns out to be more than just an illusion.

The clash between desire and conflict will result in a story. So what is plot?

Plot Defined

Plot describes the actual events that happen in the story; the steps the story takes to get to the end.

Let's consider Damon Knight's "The Handler" (The Norton Book of Science Fiction, p.45).

The Story: The most popular man at a party is shown to be just a puppet operated by someone else, but nobody wants to talk to the handler. They're more interested in the popular and charismatic puppet even though everything the puppet does or says is actually done or said at the command of the handler.

The Plot:

  1. A man, Pete, enters the room and people react.
  2. He greets everyone and people hug him.
  3. He is given a martini; he looks good; people agree with his comments.
  4. He gives good news about an unnamed "show" and people react with enthusiasm.
  5. The party recommences; people talk to him with adulation.
  6. Pete sings.
  7. Pete tells a story.
  8. Pete calls upon individuals to be appreciated.
  9. People react with enthusiasm and love to everything Pete does.
  10. Pete says he wants to introduce his handler.
  11. Pete stops moving.
  12. People start to move away from him.
  13. Pete's jacket opens at the back and a man, Harry, steps out.
  14. A few people greet him. He is nervous. The people are uncomfortable.
  15. Harry asks for something to drink.
  16. He drinks.
  17. He tries to talk to a girl that Pete talked with before; she brushes him off.
  18. He tries to talk to the only two people left near him.
  19. One of those people suggests he get back inside Pete.
  20. Harry gets back inside Pete.
  21. Pete comes back to life.
  22. The party roars to life again.
  23. The two men discuss their dislike of Harry.
  24. Harry is forgotten as Pete takes over the party again.

Twenty-four steps, or plot points, in a little over four pages can tell the story. In a good story, the distinction between story and plot is blurred, unseen by the reader. The two elements work together in a seamless fashion. But you must separate these two elements when constructing your stories.

Conflict and Plot

The characters and their conflict will give you the story. From there, you must introduce, expand, and ultimately resolve the conflict, teasing your readers along every step of the way. This will be your plot.

For example, in "Balanced Ecology" the conflict is: people are trying to take over and exploit a land and a way of life that are presented as almost idyllic. To get the reader involved in the plot, Schmitz first shows us the world, strange and beautiful, as the two children see and travel through it. The children experience something strange, almost like an earthquake, and are concerned about what it is. This is the first place where the conflict comes into the story. We also learn a number of things about the world and its inhabitants that will become important later (for example, the mimicking humbugs). The children become suspicious by the time they near their home; they creep toward the house and realize that Uncle Kugus has returned. The author tells us quickly who Kugus is by having Auris remember Kugus' previous visit.

As each incident, each plot step, occurs, the author tightens the suspense by letting us learn more about the danger facing the children and their world.

Escalating the Tension

As a general rule, the conflict or source of tension should be introduced into your story early enough so that the reader is quickly hooked.

  • In "Balanced Ecology" the threat to the children and their world starts with their feeling that something isn't right.
  • In "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things," we learn right off that Miranda is visiting with someone who is dead.
  • "The Handler" is a bit of an exception to the rule as the strangeness -- when Pete introduces the handler -- begins almost hallway through. But then the story seems somewhat "strange" from the very start.

The source of tension is then ratcheted up as the story progresses. Plot details accumulate, emphasizing the source of tension.

  • In "Balanced Ecology," we learn that Uncle Kugus has returned and learn enough about him to know he is a threat.
  • In "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things," we learn that Miranda is experiencing guided memories but that the memories are different, something in the process is not as expected. This means that something could go wrong.
  • In "The Handler," Pete "turns off" and a little man steps out of his back.

The plot steps continue, adding to previous ones, introducing new elements, bringing the reader to the end.

Resolution

By the end of the story, the conflict will be resolved. But the conclusion of the story must arise organically from everything you have put into the story before.

In "Balanced Ecology" we would feel cheated if Buck Rogers came blasting into the story to defeat the villains, because that's not the story we have been set up to expect. The term for the outside agency that pushes its way into the story is deus ex machina, which is Greek for "the God in the Machine." In some Greek and Roman dramas, an actor playing a god was lowered by stage machinery to resolve a sticky plot or save the protagonist from a difficult situation. In modern usage, it signals a contrived or implausible event introduced to resolve the plot.

The deus ex machina is an unsatisfactory plot device. It does not come organically from the story, it violates the integrity of the plot and, especially in SF, it is a form of cheating because it violates the unspoken agreement between reader and writer, that the story will be plausible in its details and in its resolution.

Unnecessary Plot Details

Which plot details do you need? It depends entirely on the story. For example, look again at the plot points laid out for "The Handler."

Each plot point is there in order to make the story progress. Knight needs to show how loved Pete is, how the others react to him, the sense of excitement that his presence generates. He does this by showing us Pete's actions and how the other characters respond. It's possible that the story would work as well if a couple of these plot points are skipped, but remember that the heart of Knight's story is the difference between the reactions to Pete and to Harry, without whom Pete is just a dead shell. The author needs to emphasize Pete's popularity and Harry's lack of popularity in order to make the ending work.

Now, imagine that in the middle of "The Handler," Knight introduced a couple of characters to discuss the philosophical implications of popularity, or perhaps the influence of pheromones on human behavior. The discussion would only get in the way of the story.

By the same token, imagine that in the middle of "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things," Miranda takes a vacation to Hawaii and spends time on the beach soaking up the rays. Well, she might very well have in the context of the story, but going along with her would have introduced unnecessary and unwelcome plot steps that didn't advance the story at all.

A good plot never strays too far from the story.

Discuss This Topic

Click on the discussion topic below to go to that thread.

The Writing Exercise

Now that you have some experience differentiating between "story" and "plot," you will apply your knowledge to your own project.

Write the story of your project, in no more than 50 words. If it helps, pretend that every publisher in the world has set a 50-word limit on story submissions, and that you must submit your story or face ruin. (Hint: look for the big issues in your story.)

Now, write the plot points of your story in sequential order, from start to finish. These plot points should describe what happens in the story on a physical, mental, and emotional level. They will form an outline for writing your story.

To share your passage with the group, create a New Message and use "(Your Book Club User Name), Plot -- Writing Exercise" in the subject line.

Post your writing sample, and let us know which it easier to write -- your story or the plot points. Explain.

Message Edited by Jessica on 04-29-2007 11:28 PM

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