I recently returned from a trip to Arizona, where I spent a week with writerly friends. Three of us took a fabulous trip to the northern high country, watching the sun come up over the Grand Canyon, strolling through a slot canyon at noon, and revisiting John Ford’s old stomping ground, Monument Valley. One of us sets her series in Arizona, and what more excuse could anyone want for a field trip? And I’d never heard of slot canyons, although, when showed a photo, I recognized a million calendar shots. Like this photo? You’ll see many more. And even better—I got a book plotted.
Plotting is hard for many people. Sage advice says to start with characters, and when you know those people well enough, their behavior alone will launch the conflict. But you have to get to know them, and to do that, you need to start somewhere. What kind of story do you want to write? What sort of plot structure should you choose? If you have trouble answering those questions, maybe these plot suggestions will give you some ideas.
Start with high school English
In high school English class, Mrs. Miehlmanns, my teacher, taught me that all of literature has only three plot types: wo/man against wo/man, wo/man against self, and wo/man against nature. According to a teaching collection from the Internet Public Library (or IPL2), Mrs. Miehlmanns was wrong about those three plots. Or at least, underreporting.
According to this IPL compilation, there can be as few as one or three basic plot structures, but also as many as seven, 20, or 36. I’m thinking, this could really help my brainstorming, not to mention, my output. Bring on those 36 basic plot types!
First there was 1
But let’s start at the beginning. The single basic plot is described by William Foster-Harris in The Basic Patterns of Plot. What, says Mr. Foster-Harris, is the single basic plot? Conflict. Yeah, big help there, Bill. Moving right along.
Then there were 3
Mr. Foster-Harris was not enthusiastic about the idea of a single plot. He really thinks there are three basic plots (yay, Mrs. Miehlmanns again!), although the three plots that Mr. Foster-Harris favors don’t jibe with my ninth-grade lesson. Mr. Foster-Harris says the three basic plots are:
- The happy ending. In this plot structure, the central character makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
- The unhappy ending. The protagonist does what seems logically “right,” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
- The literary plot. This plot hinges on fate, not a decision, and the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy.
Now there are 7
If you like the sound of seven basic plots, IPL2 volunteer librarian Jessamyn West assembled them:
- Wo/man v. nature
- Wo/man v. wo/man
- Wo/man v. the environment
- Wo/man v. machines/technology
- Wo/man v. the supernatural
- Wo/man v. Self
- Wo/man v. god/religion
I think some of these are hair-splitting just a bit. Doesn’t “nature” sound like a subset of “the environment”? Don’t “machines/technology” and “supernatural” fit in the same category? Okay, just kidding there. A little.
Too quickly, 20
Ronald B. Tobias defined 20 master plots in his book, 20 Master Plots. The title there really says it all. His 20:
- The riddle
- Forbidden love
- Wretched excess
And again, I ask: Aren’t “Metamorphosis” and “Transformation” sort of the same thing? In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, when that guy woke up, he was a cockroach. I’d call that a transformation of the first order. Notice that plot #16, “Sacrifice,” nicely ties in with Mr. Foster-Harris’s notion of the happy-ending or unhappy-ending plot. Experts think alike!
At long last, 36
Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in 1916 or thereabouts. His purpose in doing so, he claims, was to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe said that Carlo Gozzi (author of Turandot) identified. Got that?
Some of the plots in the 36 sound downright unpleasant, but here they are, free for you to adapt:
- Supplication (in which the supplicant must beg something from power in authority)
- Crime pursued by vengeance
- Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
- Falling prey to cruelty of misfortune
- Daring enterprise
- The enigma (temptation or a riddle)
- Enmity of kinsmen
- Rivalry of kinsmen
- Murderous adultery
- Fatal imprudence
- Involuntary crimes of love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother or sister)
- Slaying of a kinsman unrecognized
- Self-sacrificing for an ideal
- Self-sacrifice for kindred
- All sacrificed for passion
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
- Rivalry of superior and inferior
- Crimes of love
- Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one
- Obstacles to love
- An enemy loved
- Conflict with a god
- Mistaken jealousy
- Erroneous judgment
- Recovery of a lost one
- Loss of loved ones
Do any of these ideas stir up anything for you? I must confess, they made me think a bit. And in the event you’ve got some holiday gift cards to spend, all these books are available on Amazon and perhaps other fine retailers. The plot’s a-foot!
The IPL2 is a nonprofit reference site run by the IPL Consortium, a group of 15 colleges, and hosted by Drexel University. The collections themselves originate from and are maintained by volunteer librarians and graduate students. I am sad to report that after 30 years in business and 100,000 queries answered, IPL2 will not be maintained after the end of 2014.
This post originally appeared on the WritersFunZone.
When I was a kid, my family celebrated all the holidays in a Norman Rockwell-esque Midwestern way. There weren’t many of us, so that worked for a while. By the time I hit early adulthood, though, enough had changed that holidays couldn’t be celebrated the way we used to do it, so every year since we’ve made some kind of nontraditional accommodation in one way or another. Now we know that what counts is the time we take together, whenever that is, wherever that is, and whatever it looks like. Sometimes a six-foot meatball subway with your vegetarian second cousin twice removed and the church bag lady on the Sunday before is the best holiday ever.
I dug around a little for what other people might think about Thanksgiving. One of my favorite quotes is from William Jennings Bryan, who from school history, I always thought was a bit of a blowhard. Here’s what he said: “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.” I love that idea.
A Native American saying also hits the spot for families who might be living through dark days: “Give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way.”
Finally, I rounded up a few memories, thoughts, amusing stories, and jokes about our “uniquely American” (as write O. Henry would say) holiday. Have at it! And wherever you are, with whomever you are, I hope you have a Thanksgiving that brings comfort to your heart.
From Johnny Carson, entertainer:
Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover that once a year is way too often.
From Oprah Winfrey, entertainer:
Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never have enough.
From Erma Bombeck, journalist:
Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.
From Sherman Alexie, writer:
I always think it’s funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during the first Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians. So I’m never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.”
From Phyllis Diller, comedian:
My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.
From Debi Mazar, actor:
On the morning of Thanksgiving, I would wake up to the home smelling of all good things, wafting upstairs to my room. I would set the table with the fancy silverware and china and hope that my parents and grandmother wouldn’t have the annual Thanksgiving fight about Richard Nixon.
From Robbie Robertson, musician:
It’s a bit of a sore spot, the Thanksgiving in Indian country.
From Dave Barry, writer:
Proper turkey preparation is critical. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more Americans die every year from eating improperly cooked turkey than were killed in the entire Peloponnesian War. This is because turkey can contain salmonella—tiny bacteria that, if they get in your bloodstream, develop into full-grown salmon, which could come leaping out of your mouth during an important business presentation.
From Larry Omaha, comedian:
My mother won’t celebrate Thanksgiving. She says it represents the white man stealing our land. But she’s not angry. She figures, what the hell, we’re taking it back one casino at a time.
And—if you want to see what my family looks like, just google weird families under Google Images. You won’t be sorry.
Here’s a picture of my Christmas tree. It’s not really a tree. It’s a traffic cone that I liberated from a construction site and then wound with lights. When I first got the cone, I used regular Christmas lights, the old-fashioned kind. They generated so much heat that they made the rubber that the traffic cone was made of smell (there’s nothing like the smell of burning rubber for the holidays), so I switched to LED lights that I got on sale after the holidays were over. They do not generate any heat, and the tree is now as fabulous in every respect as I thought it would be.
The other thing about my tree: I keep it up all year round, so it’s not exactly a “Christmas” tree. It’s just a tree—or, really a traffic cone—with lights. So for anyone who worries that I’m being insensitive to cultural diversity, it’s just festive home décor.
It’s too, um, avant-garde for a lot of people. I love it, though.
Best wishes for everyone throughout the next month or so!
Our characters should have an arc, starting in one place and changing as they resolve the conflicts they encounter along the way. One way we can show character change is to show behavioral changes. In the beginning, our hero is immature, at the end he has grown. In the beginning, our heroine was selfish. At the end, she thinks of others. Progress!
Recently I realized that one way I show how characters change is that I change their clothing choices. In one manuscript, my heroine starts out wearing overalls and steel-toed work boots, which, by the end of the book, she’s discarded for palazzo pants and high heels. In my current WIP, my heroine goes from suits and high heels to a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, and then to the skinny jeans and ballet flats that describe her new life.
What’s with the heels? I wondered. Besides that they’re consummate female attire. Except for cowboys.
Cowboys is right. Five hundred years ago, high heels were standard footwear for sixteenth-century Persian horsemen. Then the style moved from Persia to Western Europe, where aristocrats wore high heels to set themselves apart from the hoi polloi. But when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, he ended this high-heeled, high-powered fashion statement by wearing flats.
This information is included in a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. The exhibit covers 500 years of high-heeled footwear, exploring the history of the shoes themselves, as well as the history of status, fantasy, innovation, beauty, and sex as told through shoes.
Did my heroines think about this when they either put on or kicked off their high-heeled shoes? You can bet your sweet Manolo Blahniks they did.
My heroine who forsook overalls and steel-toed boots for high heels? They were a special pair, bought for her by a problematic male character (okay, my hero) who thought every woman should have at least one thing that was frivolous. She wore them on her way out the door. (But she came back later. Much later)
My other heroine, who gave up heels for flats by way of saddle shoes—she’s a spy. And spies can’t go running after bad guys in heels.
At least somebody’s practical around here.
A while ago, I decided that one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.
So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.
To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.
How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.
Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)
Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.
I’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)
And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.
Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.
Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.
I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”
I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?
Helga has to go.
I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.
The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.
Helga doesn’t do any of that.
It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.
But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)
I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.
We have to make room for the passengers who really count.