Story. We’re surrounded by it. From books to television to movies and the internet we are more immersed in story than probably any culture that has ever existed. Does that surprise you?
From the time we are born we are immersed in story. As we grow more technologically advanced this isn’t becoming less, it is becoming more. Long ago it took a story teller to tell a story. With the use of fire and shadows and images smeared on walls with ash, ocher, and clay, our ancestors invented the art of story. In the Hellenistic age the Greek philosophers codified the basic elements of story and drama which were given life in amphitheaters that still stand today. With the success of Western culture these archetypal elements have become deeply ingrained in our culture and now take many forms. We consume stories as books, they are broadcast using radio waves, we sit in darkened theaters and stare at screens, we even have them on our phones. In fact, it seems odd to sit and listen to someone tell a story.
Because we are so immersed in story, and it seems so simple, and we know a good one when we hear it, there is a tendency to think we understand why it is good. We don’t do this with the cars we drive or the electronics we use, but with story, we seem to think since we’ve been hearing them all our lives we can easily create our own. If you’ve tried this you either quickly learn that it is harder than you thought, or you wind up with a pile of stories that only you think are any good.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this knows that story consists of three parts: characters, setting, and plot. You probably also know what these three parts consist of. Characters are people, or animals, or machines, or whatever, that interact in some way. Setting is where they interact. And plot is a sequence of events. If this seems simple, then consider that a car is made of a frame, a suspension, and an engine. Can you build a car?
Story is the same way. Good story has structure. We balk at this notion because we all know the great stories don’t have any structure. We assume they are great because, well, they are. They don’t have structure or we’d know it. We’d see it. But that’s the trick. The better the story, the more intricate the structure. The more elegant the design. And plot is the structure. Great athletes don’t look like they are working all that hard when in fact, they are working harder than anyone else on the field. I remember seeing Bo Jackson run in Jordan-Hare stadium. He made it look easy. Had I attempted his feats I’d have probably been killed.
I like to think about the structure of plot like the structure of a bridge. Bridges have a rather mundane purpose: they allow people or objects to move across a span that would otherwise be impassable. And like plot, a bridge can be either utilitarian and ugly, or it can be beautiful. So let me ask three questions:
- In what bridge is the structure more visible, beautiful or utilitarian?
- Which bridge is more difficult to build, beautiful or utilitarian?
- What bridge would you rather see?
As an engineer, I can tell you that your intuition is probably correct on this one. Beautiful works of architecture generally hide the structure, and hiding the structure is much more difficult that having it visible. And for whatever reason, elegance and beauty almost always result in a stronger bridge. Ain’t that great!
Plot is exactly the same way. The more beautiful and elegant the story, the more thought and design it requires, and the more the structure is hidden. Lack of design and forethought almost always result in a story that just isn’t quite right. Either the pacing is off. The lines of tension are not strong enough. The conflict is unconvincing. The emotional payoff of the climax is unsatisfying. There is no ebb and flow. In most cases an untrained eye can’t spot the exact problem with a story, but you know something isn’t right. Even when the special effects are astounding, a movie with an unconvincing plot fails to deliver. It might do well in the box office, but when we get a little older we look back and shake our heads. Star Wars I, II, and III are perfect examples of this, whereas Star Wars IV, what I know as Star Wars I, A New Hope, or just plain old Star Wars, is brilliantly structured and has stood the test of time remarkably well.
A full treatment of plot is beyond the scope of this introductory post and I will be delving more into plot in further installments. What I hope to convey with this brief article is that good writing doesn’t happen by accident any more than a good bridge happens by accident. Do the homework and get the plot right and the story will soar. Get it wrong and, just like a badly designed bridge, it will fall.
Understanding the basic elements of plot is the first step and must come before you think about how you are going to actually build your plot. Whether you use note cards or excel, or both, or something else entirely, knowing what to put on the note cards is more important than what you use. And, like all other crafts, you must start doing it before you understand it, and dedicate yourself to honing and improving your art, until, like Bo, everyone thinks it is easy for you.
I like to think that the books I write are excellent examples of strong plotting and I challenge my readers to find plot holes or inconsistencies!