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03:23 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Plot We’ve Got, Quite A Lot!

 

The opening song for the movie The Court Jester includes the memorable line: “Plot we’ve got, quite a lot!” And it is all the more memorable for being so true. (The Court Jester, if you have not seen it, really does have a great deal of plot, most of it both convoluted and humorous.)

I have always felt this was a good goal for a story to shoot for—to have lots of plot. Though, honestly, some of my favorite stories, especially children’s stories, do not have a great deal of plot. So the amount of plot, in and of itself, is not important.

Though, really, most of my favorite books have a lot of plot…a whole, big, humongous lot.

So the question arises:  what makes for a great plot?

 

Last week, we looked at some of what Aristotle had to say on the topic. He addressed a number of aspects of plot, but not everything, so I thought it might be worth taking another brief look.

Basically, what great plots have in common is—they make sense, and they make you want to keep reading.

A plot might be complicated or simple, but to be a Great Book, one would hope at least that the plot makes sense. I say “hope” because there were be books on the St. John’s program whose plots leave something to be desired. But, clearly, the ones that have Great Plots makes sense.

Plot serves two functions: structure and impetus.

Structure is necessary so that the story hangs together. Without plot, a story is just a string of unrelated events, like a dream. No one thing particularly affects another. The human mind will attempt to impose structure on random chaos. There are a few “great” books that are famous for the structure imposed upon the dream-like prose by the readers—where the entire story becomes the ultimate “fan save.”*

*Fan save—the process by which fans of a story, comic, or show compensate for some lack of logic in the original by inventing clever explanations.

A good plot makes the individual scenes more interesting by helping draw the reader’s attention to the significant parts of them. A straightforward plot draws the reader’s attention to what is worth noticing. It helps bring meaning to the scene, to clue us in as to what we should notice or care about or why.
If a man walks down a road, with newspapers blowing about his feet, carrying a cup of coffee, we do not necessarily take much notice. If he is wearing a ring with the symbol of the rival ninja clan who is out to slay our father, the man becomes suddenly significant. If the newspaper catching on his shoe includes an article about the lost golden stallion medallion our main character has just been hired to locate, the scene becomes significant in another way.
In both cases, the existence of previous plot points—the rival ninja clans or the job to retrieve the stolen golden stallion medallion—make the scene of the man walking more significant, and, thus, more interesting.

A mystery plot uses the same technique to initially draw the reader’s attention to the wrong conclusions. It distracts from the truly significant points, while also touching on those points. When the reader looks back, from the conclusion, the structure now supports the real outcome, even though this was not obvious at the time.

The other purpose of plot is impetus—to draw the reader in and pull him along They make the reader ask “why” and then plow ahead, turning pages, to find the answer.
Sometimes we love a book, but when we put it down we have no impetuous to pick up again. Nothing in the book is leading us from one scene to another, even though each scene is enjoyable. When we pick it up again, we enjoy it again, but there is no push to find out what happens next.

Other times, books grab us and will not let go. We burn with the desire to discover what happens next. We have got to know!

John used to sit down to read me the latest thing he had written, always starting with the disclamer, “Now I want to remind you that this is unfinished. It breaks off in the middle.” One day, I asked him, “Why do you always say that? What are you picturing me doing when we get to the end?

As a response, he drew an adorable picture of a little girl her mouth open very wide, shouting, “What happens?”

I had to admit, I had probably done that. Sometimes, it is nearly unbearable to wait to find out what happens next, is it not?

We all yearn to write books no one wishes to put down. Yet, page-turning alone is not the mark of greatness. A book can be totally gripping, unputdownable, when you are reading it, but completely disappear from your thoughts the moment you put it down.

If the book does not make you think when you read it, it probably will not make you think later either. And many thrillers, many masters of the unputdownable do not want to let the reader go long enough to allow them to think. If they stop to think, they might put the book down, so better not to put any rough ideas, any speed bumps.

But if there is nothing to really make the reader pause and contemplate, then there is nothing to draw them back to it, to read it again and again.

I cannot think of any greater praise for a book than to reread it. A great plot makes the story worth reading both the first time and on all the return trips.

 

 

 



Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

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From:dqg_neal
Date:February 17th, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
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I started to read your post and immediately went off chanting various lines from that movie.

"The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle."

"The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true."

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 17th, 2011 09:35 pm (UTC)
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And the flagon with the dragon.

What a good movie. ;-)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 18th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)

plotting

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I love plotting. It's my favorite part of writing. Creating the story line and the twists and turns is so much fun. I joke and say one day I'm going to just sit back and plot and hire someone to write the actual story. No. But I do love to plot.
From:anitaclenney
Date:February 18th, 2011 11:46 am (UTC)

Re: plotting

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That was my reply a second ago. I wasn't signed in :)
[User Picture]
From:kmai
Date:February 18th, 2011 08:04 pm (UTC)

Re: plotting

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Very Borges style of writing. Just think of this awesome plot or literary device, and write a story as if that novel already existed.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 18th, 2011 08:07 pm (UTC)

Re: plotting

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LOL
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From:princejvstin
Date:February 18th, 2011 06:47 pm (UTC)
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There are books that are un-put-down-able, but are like potato chips, gone and forgotten once read.

There are books that are savored and thought about again, and again, like a meal at, say, a high end steakhouse. Some of these books require work, effort and time to get through.


As you say, a writer can wish their book that is unputdownable...but on the other hand, *also* remains in the mind once read, to be evoked again and again.

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 18th, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC)
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>As you say, a writer can wish their book that is unputdownable...but on the other hand, *also* remains in the mind once read, to be evoked again and again.

Exactly! Well put!

I don't think the two qualities are necessarily at odds...perhaps difficult to combine, but not impossible.
[User Picture]
From:carbonelle
Date:March 1st, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)

Yep

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Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer did it all the time.

It's a literary crime that both ladies were shamed out of writing those sorts of books because they were "just fluff" and wasted years and years trying to make something "truly worth reading."
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:March 1st, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep

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It is! I loved both of their "fluff" books!
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From:brni
Date:February 19th, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC)
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That might actually be my favorite movie of all time.

I suspect that nanotech may some day provide us with the real secret to the unputdownable book - make the cover out of tiny bots that bond with the hand until the book has been read in full.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 19th, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC)
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LOL...kind of scary, really.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 20th, 2011 05:24 am (UTC)
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Sorry, just got to this now, Jagi. I agree that there are books that I've read that are fast-paced but, though I enjoyed them, I would never re-read. A story should be an experience that readers want to enjoy more than once and plot is what makes that happen.
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From:eleika
Date:February 20th, 2011 05:25 am (UTC)
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Yep, that was me again. *facepalm*
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From:cdenmier
Date:February 23rd, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC)
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I liked the tip about the description of a scene leading the reader to the plot points you want them--or don't want them-- to notice. Kind of like the lingering camera shot on a detail or the eerie music that plays during a scene. It's a great way to point out things to your reader...and a great chance for a little sleight of hand.
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