This wonderful piece on plot is from Curtis Brown Creative Three-Month Creative-Writing Course student Antoinette di Michele. And, like Antoinette’s last piece, we’ve lifted it straight from the Kobo Writing Life website. But, as the e-reader company awarded Antoinette the Kobo Writing Life Scholarhsip on our course and is currently sponsoring her through the programme, it’s unlikely they’ll be calling in the copyright lawyers any time soon.
Our Curtis Brown Creative class on story and plot opened with this great quote by EM Forster:
‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.’
We spoke about what the quote implies. Events are working together to create a new situation. There is an intriguing relationship suggested that you want to explore, and there is an emotional complication that draws you in. There’s a lot to infer from that one simple sentence about all that is going on in a book, play, or film.
Plot can be a dirty and divisive concept, and it’s easy to debate plot and the various structures at length. I’ve got to be honest with you; I’m not always sure what’s the best route or what I’m doing myself. Most of the time I have one story that I’m trying to get through, and I end up somewhere far away. I write from character first because I find people so interesting – more interesting than chases. I’ll sum up some of the conclusions we drew in class that I’ve found helpful when thinking of and, well, plotting, plot.
Plot is the fabrication that makes fiction. You need it, but you need it to be invisible as well. Like real life, plot takes you on an incredible journey with compelling characters. Unlike real life, the characters must drive the action and there must be action (remember, Mrs Dalloway is hosting a party, and that’s action), and threads should come together (in some way) by the end. Part of the work is getting your reader to forget that all this fabrication and manipulation is going on, to sit back and relax (this is a skill on its own).
Here’s another great quote: ‘Once somebody’s aware of plot, it’s like a bone sticking out. If it breaks through the skin, it’s very ugly.’ That’s advice from Louis Auchincloss, author of House of Five Talents among others (I haven’t read him, but it’s still a great quote). We thought that what Stephen King called a ‘strong situation’ is the best entry into a story with defined characters, and that these characters – fully developed – would show the writer and the reader the way through the plot.
A strong situation is engaging; it holds your attention. This is not to be confused with a great opening (this is something I’ve confused it with as well). Both are important, mind you, but one thing at a time. If you’re thinking of where to start, think in terms of a strong situation.
Here’s a fun Friday night game (for nerds). Think of a book you loved. Was it a strong situation that grabbed you immediately? Can you state the strong situation in one sentence? Try to. What books took 50-plus pages to hook you, and why do you think you got hooked?
So I ask myself: Do I have a story? Yes. Do I have a plot? Do I have one hell of a situation? I think so. I’m working on my one-sentence situation. I know I have my characters and the right voice. Tweet me the situation of your favourite books (@antoinettedm). I’d love to hear them. I’m one of these nerds who thinks this game is fun (and I played it last Friday night. Alone. Don’t judge me).
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