Jeremy J. Jones – Stranded in Thought

July 5, 2010

Daft About Craft: Plot

Filed under: Craft,Fiction,Writing — Jeremy @ 10:17 pm

During the past month or so, I’ve begun my study of the elements of writer’s craft. Having completed a perfunctory examination of my first chosen element, Plot, I thought it time to post some observations. This is by no means an exhaustive, end-all-be-all guide to plotting. I am working through it to learn, and encourage dissent and discussion.

First, the obvious. Plot is that mechanism that moves a story from beginning to end. But it’s also more than that. We are all taught in high school that a plot summary consists of a point by point telling of the story, such as:

  1. Henry is at work, and he’s a hardass. He’s rude to his coworkers, and somewhat unlikeable.
  2. After work, or on his lunch break, Henry feels bad for an old woman and helps carry her groceries.
  3. He meets a woman in a bookstore, and he’s smitten.

Et cetera.

But plot is so much more useful than just a telling of the tale. It creates conflict and tension, drama, and suspense. It is the element by which the writer makes the reader’s heart race. It also can be used to pull at the heartstrings, but characterization is a strong contributor there (Character is next on my list).

We use plot to grab the reader’s attention in the opening. That initial hook is plot, definitely. And in character development, which often follows the opening, we would be wise to use plot — that is, dialogue and events — to exhibit our characters’ attitudes, rather than exposition, which can put any reader to sleep.

After we’ve grabbed the reader’s attention and got her enamored with the characters, the complications begin. This is all plot. We show the problem. (Actually, it can be better to start this very early, especially in a mystery, where the “who did it” is the whole point of the story.)

And so on.

Of course, skilled writers move plot around to create new, more exciting methods. Quentin Tarentino comes to mind as one of those who masterfully alters the traditional chronological plot to wonderful effect. And literary fiction often abandons plot altogether in favor of creating a surreal setting or feeling. But that’s not the point here.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned more than I can explain at this point, because it’s all still swirling around in my head. But what I have learned, I am applying in reading some of my earlier stories, where I can see errors. Not terrible ones, but definite areas for improvement. And that is really the whole point of this exercise.

For anyone seriously considering a career in fiction writing, I strongly recommend study. You must learn your craft. Some of it you will already know, seemingly innately, though in reality you’ve just automatically attuned yourself to it. Studying it will teach you what you already know, so you can recognize it when you see it, and what you don’t know so that you can improve on it.

Growth leads to success. Apathy to failure. I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and I’m sure I will be again. But for now, I am solidly on the growth side, and plan to stay there as much as I can.


Copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones


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