Today I will be continuing my series on What Makes a Great Story. Check out the last four installments below:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2

"Plot" is a literary term defined as a series of events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence. According to Aristotle, a plot must have a beginning, middle, and end, and the events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary or probable. From an author’s standpoint, you want those events to accomplish some sort of emotional affect on your readers.

Plotting is something that’s hard for me to explain as there isn’t any secret way to do it. I think the key thing to remember is that plotting must (not should) be logical. In my mind, you want to avoid the dreaded deux ex machina which means a problem is suddenly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

An example of deux ex machina is when Superman flies around the earth and turns back time in order to save Lois Lane at the end of the first Superman movie. One, the character has never had those sort of powers in the comics and two, even within the movie itself, there wasn’t any information that alluded to the character having those powers for the purpose of the story. In this case, the plot device actually raises more questions than answers. “Well why doesn’t he always turn back time?” “So, is Lois more important than the other thousands of people he didn’t save?”

Keeping that example in mind, an author must do a good job of following his own set of rules. Here’s an example. Let’s say you establish a character who is an intelligent person that plans and analyzes life in detail, always aware of his surroundings (e.g., Batman). Poor plotting would have Batman not notice a crucial piece of information that your entire audience can see a mile away. A writer needs to provide a solid reason why Batman didn’t notice the woman in disguise was really the Riddler. Was he drugged? In the middle of a fight? Despondent due to another Robin dying?

The reason I’m using characters as examples in a post about plotting is because the thoughts, motivations, and actions of your characters are what drive a plot. Let’s look at George RR Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. His plot has to be one of the more complicated I’ve ever read. With a cast of thousands, people are making decisions all the time that not only affect the people around them but also the people hundreds of miles away. All of these little decisions are your subplots which then need to tie back to your much larger general plot. Regardless of the mind-numbing plots and threads the series has, when you get down to it, the characters are what determine the next course of events.

Therefore, a great plot in any story is dependent on consistent characters who act according to the personality that has previously been established. Now, a character can change, but there needs to be a believable reason for doing so.

Within the plot discussion, there are two other smaller points I want to bring up. Going back to deux ex machina for a moment, the thing to remember is that any problem with an ‘improbable’ event can be resolved through the proper use of foreshadowing. I’ve heard some people mention that if you foreshadow something 3 times before it occurs, then you’ve properly prepared the reader for the event. Great storytellers are deft at dropping these clues without you ever knowing they did so. They place hints in casual conversation, subtle body movements, or even description.

The other thing to remember about plot is pacing. Even the best idea, and the best characters, coupled with a great plot twist at the end will suffer if your pacing is off. You want your reader to stay engaged so things need to happen. I’m not saying things should just be non-stop start to finish, though for certain genres that would work. But in a longer story, you want ups and downs. Those lulls allow the reader to better appreciate the highs. Just don’t wait too long without another high lest you lose the reader’s interest.

Everything mentioned above can be covered in one small sentence. Great storytellers tell great stories by using logic and common sense and following their own rules as they tell it.

What authors do you feel are masters of plotting?

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