Tip #14: A Lesson From a Dead While Male - PLOT
To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man. --Aristotle
My guess is that you don’t need another workshop. Or another proofreader to fix the commas and semicolons. Or another book on how to write according to the latest fiction trend: Vampires. Dystopian world. A female FBI agent.
All of those are good, but not enough.
|He says he didn't do it.|
So, let’s go back first. Back, like 2500 years.
There weren’t novels back then. But there were plays. And plays are stories, of course. Some worked. Some didn’t. It’s the same when we see a TV show or a movie or read a book—some work, some don’t. Why? What the big question.
What I’m suggesting is that we go back to what is universal. What is timeless. What always works. That we go back to Aristotle. He’s free. No costs for a writing seminar. Nothing to sign up for. No emails promising you how to sell or write better.
Who was he?
We know Aristotle as the brilliant philosopher and scientist. But he also understood “STORY.” In his time, he went from play to play trying to understand why some were good and some weren’t. And he found that some were bad, very bad. Some were good. Very good.
No, it wasn’t the actors. It wasn’t their diction. It wasn’t their costumes. It wasn’t the “love” or the “violence” that made a story really good or bad. It was other things. It was universal things.
These universals of story can be found in The Godfather, X Files, A Time to Kill, and 50 Shades of Grey. Of course it’s also in Hamlet and Grapes of Wrath.
What are they? Plot. Character. Theme. Language. Rhythm & Spectacle.
Here we're just going to look at plot.
Plot is the plausible cause and effect events of the story. This happens, and because of that this happens, and because of this, OH NO, THIS HAPPENS, and what are we going to do? and then the resolving of the tension, and finally saying good bye to the readers by winding up the story in a satisfactory way.
So, it looks like this. Here’s the cause and effect of The Godfather:
Plot: Step 1. Introducing the characters and setting.
In The Godfather, it’s that first scene at the wedding and when Vito receives visitors who each ask him for a favor. In a very short period of time, we understand who he is, what he does, and the importance of him to his family, and vice versa.
Do we have a story yet? No. Just people and places.
Plot: Step 2. Conflict:
Our stories are about conflict. No conflict? Then no story. No one cares. With conflict, now we are interested. Now we are hooked. Now we want to know how it turns out.
In the X Files, it’s when the saucers land and start killing people. In Law and Order it’s when the bad guy does what he does, whatever that is, and now the officers have to figure it out, resolve it.
It can be in a comedy too. Remember You’ve Got Mail? Here, the two characters don’t even know there is a conflict. But the viewer does. Joe and Kathleen hate each other, but then each finds the other anonymously online, and their internet relationships grow into an online romance. But what will happen when the find out who the other is? Feel the tension?
In Presumed Innocent Rusty’s life as a prosecutor is going well, very well. No conflict in his life. No problems. Then a body is found. And his semen is found in the woman. Ooops. Have your attention? But he didn’t do it! Or maybe he did.
Plot: Step 3. Increased Action
Just having conflict isn't good enough. Events have to build up. In the vernacular: More shit happens. The good guy has a goal; he has to somehow solve the problem. Think The Fugitive. Richard has to find the one-armed man. But every attempt of his meets obstacles. He’s arrested. He’s put on trial. The prison van turns over. The train is coming. Gerard is after him.
This is classic “increased action.” It compelling and it’s fun. Just like in each of our chapters, each scene in The Fugitive has its own dilemma to be solved. Good story, no?
This is the middle of our stories. It’s the most difficult to write. Why? Because after the first conflict, our stories must build, and build and build. That’s hard. That’s what we have to do. That's the test of a good writer.
Plot: Step 4. Climax
|The truth is worse than the lie.|
Obviously this is the peak of the story. It’s the easiest to identify. It’s what we’ve been waiting for. It’s when Joe and Kathleen (You’ve Got Mail) finally meet. It’s when James Bond finally dukes it out with the bad guy.
It’s when Walter White (first episode of Breaking Bad) escapes arrest. It’s when Joe Turner (3 Days of the Condor) breaks into the head bad guy’s home and confronts him and the assassin.
Note: The “Conflict” and the “Climax” are the easiest for us to write. Building the story is where our skills really come in.
Plot: Step 5: Resolution
Here we find out what happens when the conflict is over. Does James Bond die? (Hint. No.) Does Richard Kimble (The Fugitive) confront the pharmaceutical villain and solve everything? (Yes.) Does Rusty (Presumed Innocent) die in the electric chair? Or does he find a way to explain his semen in the dead woman. (No spoiler here.)
Plot: Step 6: Denouement
Whew. The story is over. But the characters live on. Here we hint to the reader what the characters are going to do now. It’s happy. Even if it’s not happy, it can be satisfying if it’s done in the right way.
This is the plot structure that Aristotle set up for us. It works. It’s why we feel satisfied at the end of a book or movie or TV show. If we’re not satisfied, then something here was missing.
Why does it work? Because it’s the same as our own lives, even every day in our own lives. It’s in our souls. It’s us. That’s why it works.
Watch an episode of Law and Order. It's the easiest way to see each of the above universal elements in action. And of course monitor our own interest as we watch.