WHAT IS IT?
Whenever you talk to writers, at some point, the conversation inevitably steers itself to: “What’s your manuscript about?”
And then one hears about the misunderstood girl who is in love with a zombie-werewolf hybrid, the guy who can’t wait to get married, the couple who loses their home, etc.
And then I wanna go: “Yeah . . . but what’s the plot?” Because all those things are concepts. Situations.
Let me say that again, now that you’re done looking at the Situation:
Those are situations—not plots.
WHAT IS A PLOT, THEN?!
By plot, I mean the main thread the MC (main character) has to follow. The quest. There must be a conflict. And if you don’t have these things, you don’t have a plot.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been doing a lot of critiquing/editing as well as trying to finish my WIP (work in progress), and it’s come up.
Yes, Harry Potter is about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and the trials and tribulations that go along with that. Self-discovery, blah blah blah. However, while that factors in to the plot, that alone is not enough to sustain a novel. There must be some sort of journey the character has to go on.
J.K. Rowling is nice to us in that way, because if you’re looking for the “plot” of each of her books, she gives you a hint in the title. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Point is, each book has its own plot. And while Harry’s situation—the fact that he’s a wizard and “the boy who lived” and all that—helps him through the plot, it is but a small factor.
Bottom line: Each book must follow its own dramatic arc. And if you can’t figure it out, then there’s probably no plot—or it’s not strong enough.
Here is what my whiteboard looks like at the moment:
Scared yet? (You: That’s the most jacked-up dramatic arc I’ve ever seen!)
You may have noticed my ‘roided-up dramatic arc* has a few extra humps. What I’ve done here is take the regular dramatic arc (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and mesh it with Blake Snyder’s 15 beats of the three-act structure of every successful story** (opening image, setup, theme, catalyst, debate, break into II, B-story, fun & games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into III, finale, and final image).
Snyder’s structure follows the regular dramatic arc, but it does a more thorough job of establishing what author David L. Robbins would call “bases” by breaking things down even further.
For example, while Snyder’s “opening image” and “setup” fit nicely where “exposition” sits on the dramatic arc everyone learns in fifth grade Language Arts, I wouldn’t necessarily say Snyder’s “catalyst” is the same as the “conflict.”
To me, the “catalyst” or “inciting incident” (or whatever you want to call it) is the thing that sparks some change in the main MC’s life. [Harry P. gets the owl post/learns he’s a wizard]
But that’s *not* really the same thing as the “conflict” of the story, which is the actual thing that sets the plot in motion. Here is what I wrote for “conflict” in the HP#1 plot breakdown post I linked to above:
- They learn of the attempted robbery of the Sorceror’s Stone from Gringotts Bank
- This incites talk of why someone would want to steal it (because it has the power to give a wizard what he wants most) as well as who might want to steal it (He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. Voldemort)
- Harry learns from Ron and Hermione that people say Voldemort is planning to return to power
And I would agree (it’s always nice when I agree with myself!) now. The “plot” of HP1 has to do with finding the Sorcerer’s Stone—and, actually, that also helps the overarching plot of the entire series, which is defeating Voldemort. The “conflict” is, the stone is missing, yo—and it’s up to Harry & his posse to find out who has it and get it back.
NOW . . .
I’m not trying to say that writing a book is as mechanical as following a formula—of course it’s not. Your characters always surprise you, and you always change things. But if you take a look at these things—study them a bit and apply the concepts to your own WIPs—you’ll have an easier go of the initial planning and writing of your book if you figure out the bare bones of your story and they follow the arc.
It will help you with pitching and querying too, because agents and editors want to know the situation AND the plot . . .
***I’m not saying plot yourself silly. I am with David L. Robbins and his “baseball writing” on that one. But if you’ve got all these ingredients *before* you write, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tight plot and a satisfying story.