I am working on the chronology and the plot outline for a fantasy novel at the moment. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about issues about plot and what types of elements and structure need to be present to create a good plot.
I want to start this week’s discussion with making the distinction that the chronology of action in a piece of fiction is not necessarily the same as a plot outline. Sometimes the chronology of events that sparks the story starts long before the story itself starts. Sometimes the events of the story are not told chronologically. Often before writing a plot outline it is useful to write out the sequence of events in the chronological order that they happen because this can help with making sure everything fits logically.
As an example in the movie D.O.A. the point of view character comes into the police station and reports a murder. The police asks who has been murdered and the point of view character says that he has. The story then comes out that he has been poisoned, he didn’t know at first and went to the hospital. At the hospital he was diagnosed and told he had three days to live. This gave him three days to find who poisoned him and why. The story is not told chronologically. The riddle of the plot is filled with more tension because it starts with the surprise at the beginning of the protagonist reporting his own murder.
Sometimes in fiction there are actions that happen far prior to the immediate story that are part of the background to the story. As an example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually starts much sooner than Romeo out carousing with his clansmen, seeing Juliet, and falling in love. It starts with whichever of his and her ancestors originated the feud that is the backdrop to the story. This original fight doesn’t have to be included in the fictional work but knowledge of it informs the piece. It helps to set ecology and the “moral” system of the story. It gives the play an orienting starting point.
Every culture has its own moral system that often is very subtle and people who are living in the culture take it for granted. As writers we have to be very conscious not only of the cultural moral system that we live in, but also the one that we create in a work of fiction. Fiction is one of the ways that morality– what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate behavior– is conveyed. The Iliad is not just about the Trojan War. It is not a chronological presentation of the history of events of that time period. It is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. It explores this through the juxtaposition of Achilles and Hector. It uses the actions of Achilles to demonstrate his character and point up the fault of pride.
Creating a moral system in a piece of fiction does not mean standing on a soap box and getting preachy. If a writer wants to do that, I would say to them go write a persuasive essay. Fiction is meant to entertain. Encountering someone standing on a soap box and preaching for most folks is a real turn off.
Creating a moral system further does not mean that the writer has to reflect the main cultural point of view that they come from. The creation of a moral system is a way to frame what the author wants to talk about and explore. For example, a writer could create a story of success where the main character is a good Joe. The character works hard and illustrates through his actions that he is honest, hard-working, and perseveres. Maybe the tension in the story comes from another worker who is his competition/opposition who is also trying to get the promotion. The moral system of this story is that hard-work pays off and if a person perseveres and goes that extra mile, he will be rewarded.
Not all fiction has to come from this rather mainstream moral system. As an example look at The Godfather. The chronology of The Godfather goes farther back than the story. The moral system starts in Sicily with the strong sense of family. Family is all-important. Even if the family is involved in crime that doesn’t matter. What matters is the bonds between the family members.
The moral system of a piece of fiction could be anything the author wants to create. It could be the exact reverse of “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” It could be “crime pays.” Perhaps it is about a group of criminals who shun regular society and are very successful at stealing and live well. The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven spring to mind.
So if the writer has a chronology and they have identified the moral system that will frame their story, the next part of plotting to figure out is how to highlight and play with that moral system. The movements of the story and the actions of the characters must illustrate this moral system. Again it cannot be a bit of grandstanding. No soap boxes. The ending will however be where the writer tips their hand and tells which side of the moral system they fall on and the moral system will ultimately be revealed.
But this has to come from the murky, grey area. Remember stories come from conflict and tension. So… next discussion: Stories From The Grey Area