Sunday, June 2, 2013

Guest Post: The Plot

Here's another treat from Luke Bellmason. He has a couple more coming up, too.

“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”
- Robert Benchley
We are sometimes told that there are two kinds of writing; ‘discovery’ and ‘outline’, and that most authors tend to favour one or the other.
I know I am an outline writer because I love to plan things out, to structure my work around a solid plot and to know the reasons behind every action the characters take. Basically, I like every part of the writing process except for the writing part, which I will do anything to avoid.
I think this obsession with outline and plot comes from how I started out writing in the first place. My first stories were actually attempts to write up Role Playing Game (RPG) sessions. I was fascinated by the stories that could be created in these games, since they were not wholly the creation of one person and the characters were a lot more real for the fact that they were all being played by different people, with their own backstory. Each character reacted to the same situation in different ways and almost everything the characters did was governed by their skills and rules and the fickle fate of dice (dice have a great sense of humour). So no matter how much planning you put into a game scenario nobody could ever predict the outcome. Even running the same scenario several times would create a different story each time.
Of course, in RPGs, plot is very important and the outline aspect is quite hard to get right before the game is run. You don’t want your characters to be too restricted else they will get bored since there’s really no decisions for them to make. On the other hand, if you give them too much freedom they won’t do what you want them to and will kill the princess instead of rescuing her, make friends with the dragon instead of killing it and maybe even kidnap the wizard who sent them on the quest in the first place.
The reason a lot of RPGs are in dungeons, or on derelict spaceships or other in remote places is so there’s some structure that you can plan for. The walls of the dungeon are like the plot. Characters have a little freedom to choose which corridor to go down or how to handle a particular puzzle or trap, but they can’t get out of the dungeon. The players will always surprise you of course, and that’s a good thing, but in the end, hopefully, someone will emerge with the gold.
As an interesting side note, I like to think of outline writing as being plot driven and discovery writing as Character driven. With discovery you come up with characters first and then you let them go, taking you on their journey, making the decisions that they must make. Like in the role-playing game, different characters will want different things, will have different experiences and will go down different paths, which makes it hard for the author to impose plot onto them. The flipside of this is that with outline, the story is already set so the destiny of the characters you put into that plot is set.
20 Master PlotsThere’s always this famous statement that’s thrown around that there are only 7 stories in the world, or sometimes it’s 9, or 1, or 42, or whatever. But the book I most like to consult for plots is 20 Master Plots, by Ronald B. Tobias. I can highly recommend this book as it’s been without doubt the most useful writing book I’ve ever read. This reference guide is really at the heart of my latest project The Canterbury Tales.
“20 Master Plots and how to build them” is a refernce book I use constantly when planning a story. It takes you step by step through plots such as Revenge, Rivalry, Quest, Escape, Underdog, Temptation, Discovery, etc. and gives you examples from popular culture to illustrate them. It breaks down these plots into 3 acts. To give you an example, here’s an outline of how the Rivalry plot works;
Rivalry starts out with Act I being the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Your two main characters, the antagonist and the protagonist are equals, but they might not be evenly matched in certain areas. One might have money but not be wise, the other wise but poor, or it could be something else, but as the story begins there must be equilibrium.
The rivals want the same thing, so there’s a power struggle, conflict. The antagonist initiates against the protagonist, which is the catalyst scene, which should come just after the start of the story where you’ve established the status quo. Now the protagonist is falling while the antagonist is on the rise, with these ‘power curves’ being linked. As one goes up, the other should go down by the same amount. Perhaps the rich man frames the wise man for murder and has him sent to prison so he can no longer achieve the goal, leaving the rich man to work towards it unapposed. When the protagonist is sent on his way down we move into Act II.
This is where the curves bend around and start to level out towards the middle of the story. At first things keep getting worse for the protagonist, and better for the antagonist. (It’s just personal choice, but the midpoint is where I like to put a little twist into my stories and send the plot off in a surprising new direction). At the midpoint a reversal of fortune sees the protagonist start to make a come back. As their power curves are linked, a rise for one means a fall for the other until by the end of Act II the rivals are back on equal terms again. Maybe the protagonist met someone in prison who knows the rich man, and who has information to help the protagonist beat him. The twist could be that this information will cause trouble for the protagonist too, but since he’s a wise man he might be able to figure out a way of making things bad for his rival and good for himself. So now it’s time to settle the score as we move into Act III, the final conflict.
In the final act, the protagonist beats his rival, or maybe he doesn’t if you want to really throw a surprise in there. The events of acts I and II will determine the nature of the confrontation. Maybe the wise man has been studying while he was in prison and has learned to exploit the flaws of the rich man’s elaborate security system. This makes the defeat of the antagonist all the sweeter since he brought it on himself by sending his rival somewhere he could learn from criminals. Finally, at the end of Act III, one of them is defeated and order is restored.
It might all sound very formulaic and you would expect that any story written along such a strict format would be stale and clich├ęd, maybe even predictible. That is where the skill of the writer comes in, the plots are simply a framework which will allow you to build a story. The author has to come up with the details and there are many ways to throw the plot in surprising new directions. Remember also that the further apart you can throw the curves at the midpoint the greater the rise to victory will be. Alternatively you might decide to play with the curves so they hardly diverge, just to see if you can maintain dramatic tension some other way, maybe by not revealing which is the protagonist. You could even kill your protagonist at the midpoint and yet still have hime somehow achieve the goal and defeat the antagonist, all that limits you is your imagination.
When I first started planning The Canterbury Tales I used “20 Master Plots” to work out which Character was going to have which plot. I didn’t know anything about the characters at this point other than their ‘title’; Merchant, Smuggler, Assassin, etc. Because I didn’t have any strong ideas about the characters or who they were, only what they did, I thought that allowing the plots to guide me would be a good way to come up with the characters.
Writing a series of short stories would also give me an opportunity to try out a lot of different plots, working my way through the book and trying out the ones that interested me. In the event it’s taken me a lot longer to write these simple short stories than I anticipated, but I wanted to become an expert at the mechanics of plotting!
So each of the twelve stories has a different plot from Tobias’ book. I’ll describe each individual plotline in separate posts, and hopefully give you an insight into the agonisingly slow weeks, months and years that some of these plots were developed over.
So watch this space and sign up to follow this blog [That's Luke's blog, of course.] for more information.

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