Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It's the plot, stupid!

Saturday, after the launch, we went to a pub. A couple of friends I haven't seen in a while were there too. A husband and wife, collaborating to write their Fantasy saga.

So of course I immediately took advantage of the fun situation and started whining. "Something was off with my writing lately," I complained.

After some questions and probing on the wife's behalf (the husband preferred the more fun activity of drinking and less-deep discussion), we got to the bottom of it. No follow through with the plot.

What does it mean? I'm not even sure myself, but let's see if I can explain. I hold back on ideas never bringing them fully to the surface. They remain in the background and as such have minor influence on the plot. (A brand-new problem, just as I thought I've been through them all).

Why? I guess it's probably because I feel these plots were done before.

Then, my friend reminded me of something I totally forgot. According to some, there are only so many plots in the world. Pick a number, and you'll get a corresponding number of plots.

Here are, for example, the 20 basic plots as taken from The Internet Public Library:
  • Quest
  • Adventure
  • Pursuit
  • Rescue
  • Escape
  • Revenge
  • The Riddle
  • Rivalry
  • Underdog
  • Temptation
  • Metamorphosis
  • Transformation
  • Maturation
  • Love
  • Forbidden Love
  • Sacrifice
  • Discovery
  • Wretched Excess
  • Ascension
  • Descension
So yes, indeed, when it comes right down to it, I've used a number of the above plots, specifically sacrifice, love, metamorphosis (what's the difference between metamorphosis and transformation?), temptation and rivalry. But I have a problem calling them plots. I'd call them concepts, themes, premises, not necessarily plots.

I also realized something else about my "plot problems" yesterday, but that will have to wait for tomorrow.

So what do you, fellow writers, think about basic plots?
Anyone have the same non-originality fears repressing his/her writing?
Read the rest

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Nienke said...

I get a little scared when I hear/read about what's been done before. But, I try to remain confident that my story and voice will be original as will my version.
I agree with you that those 'words' are more themes than actual plots - especially when plot is defined as the arrangement of action and events.

Flood said...

I am always worried about nothing-new-under-the-sun. As BNL sings, "it's all been done."

Still, I try to tweak what seems to be something familiar with a twist of some kind. Sometimes, though, the whole thing depresses me and I feel like packing it in.

I still quest for the plot that's never been written. Has to be out there somewhere.

Fred Charles said...

You can get a group of writers in a room, tell them to write about any of those plots and you would probably get a different story from each. I think that it's what you do with the plot that makes it original.

Ken said...

I just spent a week at the Iowa Summer Writers Festival where I was told (and I think I believe) that there are only two plots: A character goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. But these are the same plot, from opposite points of view. So there's only one plot if you use a sufficiently broad definition of "journey" (physical, emotional, psychic, etc).

Another thing to consider is that character ought to drive the plot. So when I have no idea what's happening next in my story I need to get further inside the character's head. That will tell me what he does next better than if I try to follow a plot line.

Now I've got to find ways to use this stuff in my own work.

redchurch said...

And this is why people are mistaken to call plotting 'formulaic' - Hey, there's only so many stories in the world. Humans have been writing for what, three thousand years now? You still think your ideas are original?

The "But it's formulaic!" mentality is just the refusal to admit there is nothing new under the sun. Stop fighting. You're only wearing yourself out. :)

It doesn't mean you have to sacrifice integrity--integrity is in the How. You could take any current hot story, rip the plotline, gut the details, fill in your own, and it'd come across as a totally different story because YOU are what define the details. The devil is in the details.

I weep for people obsessed with originality. Get down to the real creative work of making the un-original into something new and fresh!

Georganna Hancock said...

Right. As you saw at the IPL, only one to 36 basic plots exist. I saw a 37th one proposed, but I've lost the reference to the URL, darn! Anyway, the delight is in the details. The plot is only the skeleton, the framework; you can dress it up as much as your imagination can create. Put it in space, and you have a sci-fi story. Emphasize a love relationship and you get a romance. The possibilities are endless!

Melly said...

Nienke, original voice as opposed to original plot, that's a good thing to remember. Thanks :)

Flood, good luck with your endeavours and let us know if you find that plot. I, for one, will be most interested in reading it :).

Really good point, Fred. The originality comes from the handling of it.

Ken, that's a good point too. To allow the character to drive the plot.

Eric, I hear you loud and clear. Perhaps I should learn a thing or two from your attitude towards it.

Georganna, I vote for a space love story :)
No, you're absolutely right!

redchurch said...

Mel, as much as I love plotting and like to think I'm good at it, it's also the thing I struggle with the most.

You'd think I've beaten plot & structure to death--it's a dead horse, right? Well, I just ordered a few more books specifically about plotting because I still feel weak in that area, and would like to get better at it.

I don't seem to have problems imagining characters or settings. My biggest problem is always, "Ok, so what happens next in the story?"

I'm literally obsessed with good plot, because the difference between the stories I enjoy or don't enjoy is usually the quality of the plot, or its believability.

Coming up with a few events is easy. Coming up with 60, all logically sound and perfectly corresponding to one another in each scene--that's a battle of the toughest kind. Uphill, usually, for me.

I don't think I'm alone?

Flood said...

Just wanted to say that redchurch's admonishings really spoke to me. I *am* constantly worried about formulas.

Melly said...

Eric, you're not alone. Not at all.

And Flood, Eric (redchurch) and I have had many discussions re formula (as he alluded to). These discussions usally tend to become heated debates with me shouting 'No to formulas' and Eric doing what he does best, which is basically holding a mirror to my face and call me on it! :)

redchurch said...

When I get my new boatload of plotting books, after reading them I'll share some of the finer points if any of you are interested.

jayne d'Arcy said...

I try not to think about it and just write (which is one reason some of my stories never get written). In the past I have tried to write with others that got me so tied up in knots over plot and in-depth plot analysis, it made me ill and turn away from all writing for a few years.

redchurch said...

Plot and plotting have gotten a bad name for some reason. Perhaps because people feel it is cheating, or the 'easy' way out. Focusing on plot for me, doesn't make writing any easier. Writing is still hard as hell. It does however, give me more confidence that my story will be structured in a way that is satisfying to the reader.

The other thing is... the decision to use plot/formula says nothing about how you choose to use it. As always, the details are always up to the creator.

A great example of this is Lucas & Spielberg. They are very big on formula, yet they never cease to amaze people with their storytelling. And people call them 'original' - when they are anything but. This is not a knock on them, but to illustrate that plot/formula is a tool for greater creative power, rather than the crutch many people see it as. You are not limited in any way in how you choose to use it.

Take for example, Star Wars (Ep. 4 A New Hope) and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both follow the same basic story structure, yet the stories themselves are entirely different. One is a fantasy-sci-fi epic with lightsabers, and weird creatures, the other is a whip-lashing archeological rollercoaster set in the 1930s. They couldn't be more different--which only shows the flexibility of the 'formula' with which they were created. You have to break down both stories side-by-side (I've done) to see how similar the structure is, and you won't notice until you actually do that.

You wouldn't project a fear/dislike onto a hammer. A hammer is just a tool. You use it when you need to nail things down. Ideally, there should be no 'feeling' associated with the use of a hammer. It is not 'bad' unless you stub your thumb with it. ;)

Formula/plot is just a tool. Use it or not, everything and all choices in between are up to you as the creator and you are limited only by the power of your own tastes, creative choice, and abilities.

Deborah said...

My stories tend to be character-driven instead of plot-driven. Going by the list you gave, I'd have to say that my stories fall under Escape and Revenge. Sometimes they entertwine.

As for fear of unoriginality (or worse, stagnation), I get that a lot. I proceed and finish the story anyway.

Melly said...

Oh, Jayne, I hear you. I had that from people too where they rendered me completely paralyzed as far as my writing goes.

Eric (1), we would love to hear your insights.
Eric (2), I don't have much to add or say here that I haven't before. I guess it's the point we approach this that might be different.

Deborah, me too. I finish my stories but with the last two I was unhappy with the plot result. Hence the whining.
I'm not sure if I'm character or plot driven.

Deborah said...

I'm not sure if I'm character or plot driven.

I read somewhere that character-driven plots involve the characters reacting to the events in the plot. Plot-driven stories force the character to take steps to solve a problem. Whether or not they succeed is another matter. That's my understanding, but I could be wrong.

Benjamin Solah said...

I think it's a natural fear, and yes, I do worry about doing it myself, but I still don't think the fear is justified. Surely all 'basic' plots or concepts have been done before, but each time it's presented in a new way that makes it original. So long as you're doing that, there's nothing wrong.

Melly said...

Deborah, I'm still not sure. Could it be both?
I think I tend to be character driven, but occasionally plot. If that's possible.

Benjamin, you know what? I totally agree. Gosh, you really put it well. It is a natural fear, one we should deal with, but one that is good to have! Absolutely!
(As long as it doesn't paralyze of course)

redchurch said...

There also seems to be a 'character-driven' vs. 'plot-driven' thing among writers.

I have to go with something covered in How To Tell A Story by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost...

Characters ARE the plot. Plot isn't just arbitrary events--they are moments of rising conflict that the characters face, and either deal with, or fail to deal with.

That's why it is also called 'dramatic structure.'

I think that may help get some of the negative plotting associations out of the way. :)

To say you prefer a 'character-driven' story simply means that you prefer stories where the plot is more closely connected to the characters and their conflicts.

Don't we all prefer that? Isn't that what makes stories good?

Melly said...

Eric, how could I have missed this comment. Excellent points. Thanks :)