Monday, April 28, 2014

If the Plot’s the Thing, then What’s the Plot?

In order to help new writers get started, I’ve been talking about the basic building blocks of the novel. I started with the three “ins” to the story – protagonist, setting/subject matter, and plot. Then there’s the list of characters who populate your fictional world, and the roles they play for your protagonist.

Now it’s time to look at plot points. Plot points should seem obvious, but they’re not. Some writers seem to have trouble differentiating between a plot point and an event. It helps to know exactly what plot is. So what is plot?

Simply stated, the main plot involves the actions your protagonist takes in order to meet her goal. (A subplot is usually something emotional that ties into the main plot.) For example, a typical chick lit plot might be something about a baker who’s working to open her own cupcake shop. The subplot would be something romantic… maybe the owner of the shop next door is driving her crazy. (The subplot usually addresses the protagonist’s emotional needs – maybe she needs to stand up for herself for once in her life.)

For this story, a plot point would be anything that gets our protagonist closer or further away from meeting her goal. Finding the perfect spot for her shop would be a plot point. Losing out on the space to her old rival from high school would be a plot point. Attending a bachelorette party for her brother’s fiancé would not be a plot point (unless something happens there that furthers the cupcake story.)

Unless the protagonist meets a woman with a new icing recipe at the bachelorette party, the party is just an event. It may be funny, it may reveal a side of the protagonist that you’ve never shown before, (but readers need to see she’s great at karaoke!) but it’s not a plot point.

Why is this an important distinction? Why does it matter whether a certain scene or sequence forwards the plot, or if it just amuses the reader?

There’s a popular saying in editing that the writer must “kill your babies.” This saying derives from the fact that scenes like that karaoke bachelorette party tend to be some of the writers’ favorites. But if they don’t forward the plot, they either need to be reworked or deleted. If you have a scene that can be removed without any impact on the rest of the story, it doesn’t belong in the novel.

Novels heavy with events make a book feel disorganized and aimless. The pointless scenes clutter up the book, slow down the pacing, and confuse the reader.

Writers who outline have a better shot at avoiding this trap than “pantsers” do. Because the outline generally only includes scenes that further the plot, karaoke bachelorette parties do not make the list.

Many “pantsers” do not outline because they get overwhelmed. They have a plot and some really good scenes in mind, but that’s it. They start writing because they’re afraid if they don’t get the prose down, they’ll forget those scenes. And they think that the process of writing will reveal the rest of the book to them.

If this is your process, and it works, good for you! If not, check back in next week. I’ll show how to turn a plot idea into a workable outline.

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