Let’s Talk About Plot

So this has been a highly requested post as of late, so I thought I’d spend a little extra time talking about plot. What is it? How does it work? What constitutes plot? I get these questions a lot and the more I think about it the more insanely philosophic the conversation starts to get, but I’m too pragmatic to get into that here. Let’s get to the root of it.

A plot is a conflict.

I think most of us already knew that, but sometimes a reminder can be helpful. Plots are problems. There aren’t a ton of incredibly happy stories –or at least they tend not to be happy all the way through– because stories are about the stuff that’s more difficult. We read on to know if Red Riding Hood is going to escape the wolf or if poor, abused Cinderella is actually going to catch a break and marry the prince. Plots are full of bad things.

There are varying degrees of badness.

Now this might seem like common sense, but the reminder is sometimes nice. The bad thing in your story does not have to be that the world is in peril and your protagonist is the only one who could possibly save it. I think in general it’s every new writer’s first instinct to make the awful thing as bad as it could possibly be. A more tempered perspective might be that once you have an idea of the world of the story and who the characters are, think about what problems exist within that particular realm.

So, let’s look at some YA-novels-turned-films, The Hunger Games vs. To All The Boys I Loved Before. The plots are super different. The kinds of problems Katniss encounters in The Hunger Games are completely different from the ones Lara Jean faces in To All The Boys I Loved Before. In both, you could say the problem is kind of thrust upon them. Katniss volunteers to participate the Hunger Games in her sister’s place. Lara Jean’s little sister Kitty sends out a box of written love letters that Lara Jean wrote but never wanted sent. Katniss might be facing a challenge that will most likely kill her, but Lara Jean’s situation instills a similar kind of horror even as none of the characters are at risk of losing their lives.

Sustaining the problem.

Moving right along. So, plots are problems, but a good plot is not going to be resolved so quickly. It gets complicated along the way, or something like that.

In “Cinderella,” Cinderella isn’t allowed to go to the ball, even though she really, really wants to. She finishes her chores early and her fairy godmother steps in to give her a dress and a ride to make it happen, but that’s not where the story ends. Maybe it could have been the ending, except her fairy godmother’s magic comes with conditions: Cinderella has a curfew.

So she meets Prince Charming and things are almost going a little too well for her, but because she has to race home early, she clearly didn’t get to talk to the Prince very much because he has no identifying information to use to possibly meet her again. Though this clever Prince remembered her shoes of all things and when he sees a dropped glass slipper, he has a way to find her again. And we all know the rest.

But see? The initial conflict might have been that Cinderella wants to go to a party, but once that happens, there’s suddenly more to it. If we’re following Cinderella’s problems, when she finally gets what she wanted and the party is even more worthwhile because she met Prince Charming, BUT then, she has to leave before she even apparently tells him her name. The new conflict then becomes “will Cinderella and Prince Charming find each other again?” It’s the twists and turns that help sustain the plot.

Plot vs. Problem

So what is the plot of Cinderella? (Hint: It’s not that she just wants to go to a party.) Cinderella is a classic “rags-to-riches” story. We see the poor, soot-covered orphan. In her hopes to attend a royal ball, we can see her desire to change her situation.

While she’s good and virtuous, Cinderella doesn’t really want to spend her all life serving her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. When she finally can attend the royal ball, the story isn’t over because the enchantment that allows her to look like a princess isn’t permanent. It expires at midnight, and so she’s really only getting a small taste of the life she desires. When she runs home from the ball, her situation hasn’t really changed. That’s why the story isn’t over. When Prince Charming finds her glass slipper and goes out looking for her, there’s suddenly a new hope that he will find her and marry her so that her situation is more permanently changed.

While Cinderella’s desires, wants, and problems change, the problem of the plot remains the same. The story doesn’t feel scattered or all over the place because with each twist and turn in the story, Cinderella is still trying to achieve the same thing.

Now there’s a million more things to be said about plot but this feels like a good breaking point. I read every comment and question, if there’s ever something writing related you want further discussed, be sure to reach out.

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