Plot and Structure

Before I begin, I must tell you that plot is something on which writers disagree the most. While it’s possible to see a certain uniformity of opinion when it comes to technical aspects of writing such as style and word choice, plot elicits wildly diverging views. On one side we have Ray Bradbury who spoke of ‘jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down’, and on the other we have P.G.Wodehouse who wrote hundreds of pages of notes before he began writing a novel. He once said, “A writer must always examine each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and ask himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, ‘This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,’ you’re sunk.”

Now both Bradbury and Wodehouse are literary greats, so I won’t take one or the other side. All I will say is that plot is one of those ephemeral things that writers struggle to grasp and put down on paper. For instance, what is the definition of plot? How does it differ from ‘story’? If you read around on the subject, chances are that you will find a thousand different explanations, each one professing to be right.

I find it sensible to ignore all technical definitions of plot and focus on the practical aspect. If you write a novel, you’re writing it for someone to read it. Your reader, when he picks up your book, does so under the assumption that it is about something (or someone). Have you ever read the first five pages of a book and tossed it away with a disgusted: “Where is this damned thing going?”

That is the most fundamental contract between the storyteller and his audience; that the story must ‘go somewhere’. As a storyteller, your primary aim is to prevent your audience from ever asking that question by answering it before they ask it. What you do to achieve that goal is plot.

I know I am probably being obtuse here (and not very useful), but that is deliberate. Too often we get tied up in technical descriptions and lose sight of the purpose behind our actions. So I am proposing to you that as long as you know in your mind exactly what a plot does and how you’re going to achieve it, it does not really matter whether or not you can articulate what it is. Whether or not you can define plot is irrelevant as long as all your stories have one.

Structure is a similar beast. It exists with the sole purpose of making your story as clear as possible. You will see a lot of people touting this or that as the ‘best story structure’, but I’ve found little to no value in such claims. The ‘best structure’ is one that stands out of the way and allows your story to take center stage. If your reader is taking time out from your story to notice the structure, perhaps it is not doing its job, no matter how much you love it.

Having said that, though, it may pay to read up on what is considered the most basic form of all stories: the three-act-structure. This assumes that human beings invariably live and think in terms of three acts (morning-evening-night, birth-life-death, childhood-youth-adulthood etc), therefore we resonate by instinct with stories that fall into this rhythm. That may be true or false, but it is a fact that the vast majority of plays, movies and books religiously follow this structure. You may want to, too. If you think it’s a pile of poo, fair enough, chuck it. But do give it a try before you do so.

I will close today with a little guide to generating plot ideas. There are quite a few techniques for this – some say freewrite, some say mine your past, some say take long drives – and all of these work, but the most important habit you must inculcate to always be brimming with ideas is to read. In his keynote address in 2001, Ray Bradbury prescribes a course of reading to all writers: one poem, one short story and one essay everyday. Keep a daily log of what you read, and if possible, write down your thoughts every night on what you’ve read that day. If you do this for a year, you will have a three-hundred-page book of ideas to which you can go whenever you want a story.

One addition I will make to that course is art. Take your pick of romanticism, naturalism and surrealism (or mix them up) and study one painting each day. Write down a hundred-word review on each painting and store it away in your log. The more you do this, the more your head will explode with ideas clamouring with each other for your attention whenever you sit down to write a story.

And after you pick one to write it, don’t fret about imponderables like the nature of plot. You know the purpose of its existence, and you will do everything in your power to fulfill it. That’s all that matters.

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