Plots, Personal Inspiration, & Popular Fiction Writing
Part I: More Lessons in Plot Structure
Tobias starts off telling stories that have evolved as urban legend. By constant retelling, these stories have evolved to a pure plot.
He mentions “The Choking Doberman”:
“A woman returned to her house after a morning of shopping and found her pet Doberman pinscher choking and unable to breathe. She rushed her dog to the vet, where she left it for emergency treatment.
“When the woman got home, her phone was ringing. It was the vet. “Get out of your house now!” he shouted.
“‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.
“‘Just do it! Go to a neighbor’s. I’ll be right there.’
“Frightened by the tone of his voice, the woman did as she was told and went to her neighbor’s.
“A few minutes later, four police cars screeched to a halt in front of her house. The police ran inside her house with their guns drawn. Horrified, the woman went outside to see what was happening.
“The vet arrived and explained. When he looked inside her dog’s throat, he found two human fingers! He figured the dog had surprised a burglar.
“Sure enough, the police found a man in a deep state of shock hiding in the closet and clutching a bloody hand.”
Tobias then defines this as having all the necessary elements for a complete story.
“The characters and details that describe place and time take a back seat. The story has three movements:
“The first sets up the story by introducing both drama and mystery, when the woman comes home to find her Doberman choking. She takes her dog to the vet.
“The second movement starts when the woman returns home and the phone is ringing. An element of danger is introduced when the vet, very agitated, tells her to get out of the house. We know intuitively that the danger is connected to the mystery of the choking Doberman. But how? We try to guess. The woman flees her house and the unknown danger.
“The third movement begins with the arrival of the police, who confirm the magnitude of the danger, and the arrival of the vet, who explains the mystery. The police prove the theory of the dismembered burglar when they capture him.”
Tobias considers that this has everything necessary for a successful story. He states that this is not that different from something you’d find in Agatha Christie, just the degree of depth they tell the story.
While Plot is the core of this book, he nods to that and Character as being the two strong forces that affect everything else in the story.
Much as Dean Wesley Smith points out in his Classic Workshop Genre Structure, plot is the skeleton the story is hung on. DWSmith holds that there are five points which are present to every story that need considering: character, setting, story (plot), style, voice (of character). And we’ll take these up in later articles.
Genre itself has nothing to do with any particular story, it’s the window dressing that takes up the popular fads (and see later under the Part 3 Koontz review for a longer discussion.)
Tobias says this Doberman story works because is is a riddle. That is to say that it’s a subset of Mystery. A puzzle to work out. That’s what pulls this story along. You’re trying to figure out from the clues what happened.
While there is a structure to plot, Tobias’ next step is to discuss the difference between Plot and Story (a simple narrative.)
“Plot is story that has a pattern of action and reaction.
“Among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the story of the Whale Husband was once popular:
“A fisherman caught a strange fish, which he gave to his wife to clean. When she finished her task, the wife washed her hands in the sea. Suddenly a Killer Whale rose out of the water and pulled the woman in. The Killer Whale took the fisherman’s wife to his home at the bottom of the sea, where she worked as a slave in his house.”
The Whale Husband is a simple narrative.
While the Doberman story raises and fulfills expectations, the Whale Husband doesn’t. Who, What, and Why are important to a fully developed plot. All three must be present. The Whale Husband is missing Why any of that happens.
E. M. Forster in his Aspect of the Novel, says that the simple story “The king died and the queen died.” only gives you a narrative. It doesn’t involve the listener. (“So what?” you could ask. No Why.)
“Add a touch of suspense: ‘The queen died and no one knew why until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’
“[Narrative] then, is a chronicle of events. The listener wants to know what comes next.
“Plot is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behavior. Plot involves the reader in the game of ‘Why?'”
We have to return to William Wallace Cook’s “Plotto” law of what a plot has to have:
“Purpose, expressed or implied, opposing Obstacle, expressed or implied, yields Conflict.”
Conflict is synonymous with Tension (and less likely to think you have to have a battle or argument as part of every story.)
Tobias tells this as
“[Y]ou’ve seen how the chain of cause and effect builds and how it relates to conflict, which produces the tension you need to keep the story going. But a story requires constant tension. You must increase the tension as you build toward a climax. That means you can’t rely on local tension alone; you need a larger conflict that can support the story.”
This then brings you right along into the standard three-act structure with a heightened tension right up to the climax and resolution in the third act.
Tobias tells of the “boy meets girl” idea as a simple narrative. And again, we can ask, “So what?” to see it’s not a plot.
Boy meets girl.
Girl refuses boy.
That’s getting somewhere. Now we wonder why.
Again, it’s the obstacle to the purpose or goal which causes the tension.
The three acts per Tobias are: Setup, Complications Resolution.
Additional points Tobias then brings up as important:
Emphasize character personality changes – the protagonist must evolve during the story. He or she must learn something, change their operation.
Make sure everything that happens in the story is important. You’ve probably run into this. Only include in any story those things which move the story forward. The bedtime hygiene habits of the protagonist isn’t important in a thriller, but may be in a romance, or a mystery. So you keep locations appropriate, and actions are logical. If you let the character take a side trip, it had better have something to do with the story. The Red Herring in a mystery is typical use of this – now there is less time to solve the crime, and the detective has a reaction to looking foolish (or not.)
Good writing makes the Causal look Casual. Tobias means by this that you aren’t throwing things in to keep the reader reminded of how the plot is building. And this is a reason for the slow parts in a thriller. Give the audience and characters a chance to rest. Have your characters reveal more about themselves so the reader becomes more engages with them personally. Just not too much. This is a thriller after all, so the action has to start again.
Leave nothing to chance. While life is chaos of chance events, readers like their stories straight up and neat. There is no “act of God” that intervenes. The protagonist is busy figuring out how to take charge of things even though it seems everything is against them. There are rules, even in “Alice In Wonderland”. So your Fantasy world has rules and you have to define them and stick to them.
Your central character has to perform the central action of the climax. Pretty obvious. That’s what readers expect. Your main character has to act, not be acted on. That’s how a character evolves. They try, and fail, and learn, then eventually try and succeed as a result of what they learned.
The Three Plots
Tobias has only two: Mind and Body.
Cook held that there was one main purpose that fit his law. And that is the Pursuit of Happiness. Below that, he considered that there were three areas of goals: Love and Courtship, Married Life, and Enterprise. Overall, he held therewas one supreme purpose, To Live, and one main obstacle, Death.
Tobias quotes the dramatist Willa Cather, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
In Cook’s “Plotto”, he covers that Purpose, Obstacle, and Conflict (Tension) have millions of possible outlets. Humans are gifted with an unlimited imagination to recombine old material to make new.
He later pointed out that it’s the uniqueness of the individual and their experiences which make our imagination unique, and so unique stories from any combinations of conflicts.
Even though the idea is held by many that there are only a limited number of possible combinations, the individual rendering of these makes for new stories when the underlying plot has been used regularly throughout storytelling history.
By comparing Cook, Tobias, and Wycliffe A. Hill (of “Plot Genie” fame) we can see that there are three actual physical plot structures: Mystery, Adventure, and Romance. Any story could be written using one of those structures. They are physically different in composition.
This then expands Tobias’ idea to Mind, Body, and Heart.
Certainly, the heart makes the mind do fascinating things it wouldn’t logically have tried otherwise.
Tobias held that all action plots are those concerning the body, and plots of the mind are looking for meaning to that action.
Meaning, meanwhile, is also found in the heart in addition to logical structure. Comparing this with the Greek Ethos, Logos, and Pathos would seem to make our stories either mind or heart.
Genres, as we’ll explore later, have been settled by readers. There has to be action in a story. And in every blockbuster story, all three plot structures of adventure/action, romance, mystery are present.
To our Western culture, we need action to keep our audience riveted in suspense, in mystery to engage their minds in guessing the outcome, and in romance to involve them in the character relationships/attractions, to root for the hero and heroine through it all.
Reviewing the Five Elements of a Story
DWSmith holds that in any story there is Character, Setting, Plot, (character) Voice, and (author) Style.
His above mentioned course lays out genres as having these in different priorities.
Another lecture series by Katherine Rausch, also available on Smith’s site, lays out the short story as having only seven parts, regardless of genre:
Problem to sSolve
Trying to solve/Failing to solve
Final big try (and success)
Validation (telling the reader that the story is over.)
They hold that this is the “seven point plot”. For our use, it gives us our main plot with depth.
Character, Setting, Purpose/Opposition (tension/conflict), Try/Fail/Succeed efforts, Climax, Resolution.
And you’ll see these through multiple versions of plot structure that are available today. Chief (and simplest among these) is the Lester Dent System. While Dent dealt almost exclusively with the murder-mystery (combined with a lot of action-suspense) the overall story arc has the same approach. The protagonist has a goal opposed by the antagonist and through multiple try-fail efforts, the protagonist ultimately wins out and evolves in the process. (If the protagonist doesn’t win, or dies in the attempt, it is a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet had them successfully end up together by both dying. So it was a tragic romance that somehow fulfills the recurring plot of a Romance.)
The “Deep Structure” of Plot
In any successful story, in any genre, you have
Character, Setting, Conflict/Tension, Try/Fail/Success, Resolution, all with emotional involvement for the reader.
The protagonist has to evolve. And in this evolution is where the message or theme for the story really hits home with the audience.
Cook called these themes Masterplots, and broke them down into three clauses:
A. Protagonist Clause
B. Action Clause
C. Resolution Clause
You can also see that this brings us right back to the Three Acts.
He laid out 15 “A” clauses, 62 “B” clauses, and 15 “C” clauses. Or somewhere north of eleven thousand possible themes. (And then followed these with 1462 Conflict clauses that could be combined in and between themselves. His “Plotto” is a roadmap to help a writer navigate the possible combinations, if the suggestion of a theme isn’t enough.
Tobias held that the important point of a story is to involve the audience in its resolution. This is the Deep Structure.
The modern culture tends to think in black and white solutions to things. But the world is full of gray areas. Great stories move the reader/viewer into tackling these gray areas and putting aside fixed ideas of how things should be.
And those great stories generally work (according to our Western Culture preferences) as long as they always resolve by the end. The protagonist wins, although he/she might not get everything they want. But they evolve in the process and leave the reader/viewer OK with the outcome.
And this is what turns the “What If” idea of any author into truly great fiction that transports the viewer and leaves them both satisfied with that story and wanting more from that author.
Whatever model you hold, I only point out here that there are existing models you can choose from to achieve what you want.
(I’ve more discussion of this in my upcoming book “Still Feeding the Beast?”)
Additional Characters Add Depth
Tobias points out that with more characters, you have developing relationships that add far more complexity and reality to your story.
Of course this is usually not possible in the short story, which will have one or maybe two main characters. The story in that case is about the single, changing relationship between those two people. Or about the evolution of the one character.
With three characters, you then will see 6 relationships that will change. (You can grid these out. Each character has a relationship with two others.) And as those relationships change, they change the others by result.
So the story and characters you start with won’t be the ones you end up with.
In a Romance, this is the (usually) male and female leads, plus another character or either sex that influences these two. Often the third acts as a villain opposed to the main character’s purpose of achieving a “happily-ever-after” together.
Tobias gives the example of Ghost, with Swayze, Goldberg, and Moore in a triangular inter-relationship. Swayze as a ghost needs Goldberg to act as intermediary to communicate with Moore.
Then Tobias brings up the Gothic romance “Rebecca” by Duphne du Maurier. In that story, the husband brings his new wife back to his estate, while haunted by the memories of his deceased wife. The housekeeper is working against the couple’s success, as she is still devoted to the ex-wife. And so, although the ghost never makes an appearance, their relationships between all three present characters are influences by that fourth entity.
Each character has three relationships to explore, so it becomes a 12-element scene. And all these relationships are in flux. Every character in such a situation is capable of evolution and empathy by the audience.
This is also the reason for the success of teams in serial fiction. You get to know the characters more and how they change through the various episodes for the lifetime of the series.
Plot Vs. Character
Tobias touches on this, but Wycliffe A. Hill explored this in more detail. (See “Plotto Genie: The Endless Story” for his essays in this area.)
Characters defined by their plots develop melodrama. They tend to wind up two-dimensional. Yet the character is changed by the plot. And the plot is the result of decisions made by the character.
We’ve already defined plot as the result of opposition to the purpose of the protagonist. That tension/conflict, along with the setting then results in action. Those efforts evolve the character and end up with a resolution of the story.
The character then evolves as a result, and the audience appreciates the lesson they just witnessed.
Again, we have the three plot structures at work in any blockbuster bestseller. Romance, Action, Mystery. The protagonist will have one of these plot structures be over-arcing, and you’ll be able to tell which it is in the first few pages of a book or minutes of a film. The other two are then minor story arcs which may complete or not.
Each character can have several story arcs going on their own. The Matrix can be analyzed in this fashion. Any movie or book (like Dent’s Doc Savage Series) can be analyzed along this line. Again, when you have a series (like long-rnnning TV movies such as Star Gate and Star Trek with their different spin-offs) they can be analyzed over the length of their runs through the character changes.
Tobias holds that you can emphasize action over character, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect to develop your characters just to forward any action. You will have to strike a balance, or strike out with your book or script.
Checklist for 20 Plots
I don’t go into the 20 plots Tobias worked out. As above, these are variations of Romance, Action-Adventure, and Mystery. They do give you some great information about how to build various genre-specific plots and so worth a story. Also are included are checklists, which are a way to define your genre conventions and audience expectations.
This book is still on my pile of books to get back to just because of that data set.
His final checklist is worth a study of what you should expect your story to contain:
1. In fifty words, what is the basic idea for your story?
2. What is the central aim of the story? State your answer as a question. For example, “Will Othello believe Iago about his wife?”
3. What is your protagonist’s intent? (What does she want?)
4. What is your protagonist’s motivation? (Why does she want what she is seeking?)
5. Who and/or what stands in the way of your protagonist?
6. What is your protagonist’s plan of action to accomplish her intent?
7. What is the story’s main [opposition-created] conflict? Internal? External?
8. What is the nature of your protagonist’s change during the course of the story?
9. Is your plot character-driven or action-driven?
10. What is the point of attack of the story? Where will you begin?
11. How do you plan to maintain tension throughout the story?
12. How does your protagonist complete the climax of the story?
Next: Part II – How Inspiration is Personal, from Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing.”
Also published on Medium.