Sunday Writing Discussion #13: Plotting Part One– Plot Development versus Incidental Action

The concept of plot is really a pretty simple one. It is the sequence of events in a story that starts at the beginning with the introduction of a conflict, revs up as the tension mounts, is addressed during the climax, and then resolves. For whatever reason, in my opinion, the element of fiction that is the source of many writers failing to achieve their intentions is plot. Plot can be made formulaic as in something like Lester Dent’s well known plot formula, but even with this plot formula as a guideline many writers still cannot write a piece of fiction that is a satisfying read.

Plot formulas aside, there are some basic aspects that need to be included in a plot to make a piece of fiction work. Some of these may be self-evident and some are not as simple as they sound. I think plots need the following:

1. tension/conflict that sparks plot
2. real opposition that cranks up tension– the difference between plot development and incidental action
3. change of some sort needs to be the point of any piece of fiction
4. include only material that is important and relevant to advancing the plot
5. make the “causal look casual”
6. leave out divine intervention or too easy resolutions that feel like a cheat to readers
7. make sure that the main character is actively at the center of the resolution of the conflict during the climax

I think what might happen quite often when novice writers sit down to write is that they haven’t really put enough thought into what they are going to write. The writer gets an idea for a story or character and sets off full tilt. It is fun to write some scenes! And then those scenes have to get wrangled into something resembling a whole. And then an ending needs to pop onto the page. Etc. The whole composition is not so much an intentional piece as a bunch of bits thrown together mish-mash and trying to take on the semblance of a story. Some folks can do this and make it all work by revising and revising and rewriting and rewriting. Others can’t. Further, beginning writers are notorious for not being able to view their work with a critical eye or to be able to take criticism.

Writing is fun! And it takes pushing oneself to further understand how good fiction comes together, requires thought to figure out how to use one’s understanding of how good fiction is assembled, and one must make make some very determined choices in order to write a piece that comes together as a whole and be able to do this consistently. A half way decent story should not be a happy accident.

Today I have spent all afternoon assembling a quilt (metaphor for pulling together a plot?) and thinking about the difference between plot development and incidental action. In a short story, only action that integrally moves a story forward towards its climax and resolution should be included. Incidental action needs to be left out. What’s the difference?

For example, if a story is about a boy whose village is raided by a violent warlord this might provide an initial spark of conflict, but it is only a conflict of the moment. There needs to be more. It isn’t enough to advance the story forward solely on this one plot point of action. However, if the boy’s village is destroyed, he is left behind because he is too scrawny to even be made a slave, this sparks him to take on the challenge of turning his scrawniness into some form of physical fighting ability, he finds a mentor and learns martial arts, discovers he has talent but cannot advance to the next level until he can become focused, overcomes his internal conflicts caused by the violent warlord so that he can be focused, and proves himself in some action against the warlord– well then the action of the warlord destroying the village moves from incidental action to action of the plot development sort. The character is challenged at every plot point by the sequential action. And there is character change! Woohoo!

For another example, a character just walking through a door with a gun because the story is flagging and needs to be livened up is incidental action. It sparks something in the moment, but unless it is integral to the plot no matter how sensational the action is it isn’t going to add to the tension in any real way or advance the plot. It actually detracts and erodes the tension by pulling attention in too many directions. The same goes for a seductive female character, well described and cool sounding alien, or that something that “suddenly” appears wandering through.

Conflict at the start of a story may be of the incidental type, but it needs to lead to a deeper conflict that is more integral to the main character of the story. To write a story that will hold together and be satisfying as a piece of dramatic fiction, the action and subsequent tension must not remain at surface level. The action needs to reflect a deeper conflict that the character needs to resolve and cause change or be changed by. The mounting tension needs to be as a result of investigating the character of the point of view character going through the plot crisis. Incidental action does not do this and if a story is a series of incidental bits of action, it will feel like it is lurching from scene to scene and any character change presented will feel contrived. It’s not enough to have action that sets a story in motion, the action must continually test the character and move towards the resolution.

This is just one part of thinking about plot. I have thoughts on some of the other aspects of plot, how plot, character, and theme have to work together, and how creating background information can possibly provide a map of the story terrain to develop plot. More next week!