The neighbor kitty-corner to my yard is taking down a 100-year-old (or older) pine tree. It is enormous—by far the largest tree on the block—and towers over all the buildings in my residential area. The workmen have been at it for two days already. The buzz of their chain saws is both irritating and heartbreaking. I don’t know if the tree is diseased—it didn’t look it—and I was often annoyed at how it shaded my vegetable garden. But over the buzz of the chainsaw, I think I can hear it weeping.
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.
Did you ever wonder why dieters could seem so snarly? New research says that hard-to-notice blood sugar imbalances can be partly to blame for irritability and irrational frustration—including domestic quarrels.
Here’s the theory: Self-control takes energy to maintain, and that energy comes from burning glucose. If this energy supply is low, regulating emotions and unwelcome impulses becomes more difficult.
A team of scientists decided to test the relationship between blood sugar levels and domestic quarreling. They handed out voodoo dolls and glucometers to 107 couples, who had been married for an average of 12 years. Every evening for three weeks, according to their marital frustration, each partner pricked a doll that symbolized their spouse and measured their blood sugar level.
The results, posted online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists, showed that the lower a study participant’s blood sugar, the more pins they stuck in the doll.
Does the link between irritability and hunger seem intuitive to you? It does to me, too. But now you know it’s a scientific fact—there’s a reason you might reach for a cookie after a fight with your significant other besides that you need the comfort. You probably also need the glucose.
I like spy stories, mysteries, caper plots, and thrillers, and a friend had strongly recommended this six-hour television mini-series from 1979. It stars Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson, and it looked great. I love those guys. Tonight I settled down to watch. The first hour: not much happened. We got some backstory that had one pretty exciting scene, but it was backstory. When the credits rolled at the end, I thought I had misunderstood how the disk was set up, and I was getting intro credits really late into the show. Really late. Like an hour late.
But no. I needed to click again to get the second hour to start. Okay, so the producers/directors like long set-ups. The mini-series has a lot of characters, and they’re all white British men who wear trenchcoats, so maybe the producers thought we needed a long intro to get everybody straight. The second hour started. And again…waiting for something to happen. Waiting. Waiting. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, five minutes before the end, I learned that Alec Guinness has been called out of retirement to find a mole in Britain’s secret service. Okay.
I plan to watch this mini-series to the end: the disks are here, after all. I think what’s making me yawn is the way the story is unfolding, in way too leisurely a style for what we’re used to these days. This mini-series was filmed 35 years ago, and I don’t think this story would be scripted this way today, no matter how John Le Carre had written the book. These days, most spy films seem to lead with a car chase or a scene that leads to a car chase–something that is big, bold, noisy, and fast—something that producers think will hook the viewer and make them sit up and pay attention. Just think of the recent Bond films with Daniel Craig, for example. A slower build doesn’t work that well any more.
That’s true for books, too. We’re taught that contemporary fiction, especially genre fiction, should begin in medias res—the beginning of the action. And that usually means literally—like the middle of an argument or a fire or burglary or some other central problem for the characters. Then the beginning of the problem—like the why of the argument or the fire—is layered in later as backstory, and then, writers hope, the ending will take care of itself.
I’m a big fan of old movies and old TV—and by “old” I mean from the 1930s and 1940s for film and 1950s for TV—and a lot of technique from those days looks dated today, even though the stories might still be fun. So I’m willing to cut Tinker, Tailor a lot of slack for what I think is a style convention of 35 years ago. Even with not a single car chase, Ian Richardson is deliciously evil, and Alec Guinness carries off his part brilliantly. Now in the next episodes, I know we’ll start to get some action. Even if it’s not car chases. Or fires.
I’m too late to wish everyone merriness for Christmas, Hanukah, the Solstice, Kwanzaa, and no doubt many other December holidays, but I’m just in time for Boxing Day. The day after Christmas is celebrated by most countries in the Commonwealth—historically, by charitable giving. Today, though, it seems to be mostly about resting from the Christmas frenzy, and shopping. It’s a mystery why Americans haven’t adopted it.
The origins of Boxing Day are shrouded in mystery. One theory says that “Good King Wenceslas” was out surveying his land on St. Stephen’s Day — Dec. 26 — when he saw a poor man collecting wood in a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant’s door, thus institutionalizing a tradition of alms-giving.
A second theory is that during Advent, Anglican parishes collected donations in a box, which was broken open the day after Christmas and its contents distributed among the poor. Also on the day after Christmas, the aristocracy traditionally distributed presents (boxes) to servants and employees.
Boxing Day has been a national holiday in England, Wales, Ireland, and Canada since 1871. Boxing Day fox hunts were held all over the English countryside for hundreds of years, but in 2005 Parliament banned the traditional method of using dogs to kill the prey. Hundreds of thousands of people still turn out at Boxing Day fox hunts around Britain.
The Irish refer to the holiday as St. Stephen’s Day, or Wren Day, which supposedly commemorates the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The Irish tried to sneak up on the English invaders, but were betrayed by the song of a wren. Most historians find this story to be an excellent example of the Irish story-telling tradition.
The Bahamas celebrate Boxing Day with a street parade and festival called Junkanoo, in which traditional rhythmic dancers called gombeys, wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses, fill the streets.
So, my friends, have fun: hunt for a fox, parade with a wren, dance down the street, or even watch a bit of football on TV. It’s Boxing Day!
Thanks to Time Newsfeed for the info.
A while ago, I announced that I’d be dropping this blog to blog over at eightladieswriting, where I’ve joined seven other refugees — I mean, former classmates — from the romance writing program at McDaniel College. I guess obviously enough, we talk about writing over there. But it turns out, as infrequently as I post here, I don’t want to let go. So…look for me. Occasionally.