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Fiction Plotting 1/4
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Fiction Plotting 1/4
BookMarc – Plotting Fiction
Part 1 of 4 parts
Sometimes plots can grow organically, just moving from one
scene to the next. But if you'd like to know about the
problems of plotting, or would like to get a better handle on
it, maybe this is the time to actually examine what a plot is
and how to put one together.
Never underestimate federal asses. Urban legend has
it that when a reporter wanted to find out how many people
worked for the CIA, he called the Russian Embassy.
This was at the height of the cold war and the
reporter was doing a story on the new CIA building in Langley,
Virginia. When he asked the CIA how many people worked out
there, he was told that information was top secret. So on a
whim, he called the Russian Embassy, and the Russians, in what
had to be a gleeful tweak of the CIA's nose, told him.
When the stunned reporter asked them how they came
upon that top secret information, they reveled they simply
counted all the toilet paper the building ordered each month,
and knowing how much other government buildings ordered and
their number of employees, they extrapolated the information
accurate to plus or minus twenty.
Nice little story? It's what we call plot. Catchy
first line. Second line teasing deeper into it by revealing
the what, but withholding the why. Finally, sucked into it
now, we reveal the less interesting where and when. Then
seeking information in why. And finally answering the
contract of the first line with a satisfying ending of how.
FYI, I tried out eight opening lines before I came up with the
The basic plot of a novel is someone wants something and
strives to attain it. This want could be the reason for start
of the novel. A young person goes to New York to become an
actor. Or the opening conditions of the story could create
the want. A man returns to a parking garage to find it closed
with his car locked inside. This actually happened to me
which became the opening of If They Ask for a Hand, Only Give
Them a Finger. Or a man goes out on the deck of his boat to
see a woman sitting in the rain at the end of the dock, the
beginning of Me and Snack McGhee. The want of the novel could
be anything except sitting in front of a TV and drinking beer
for three hundred pages. Hmmm?
Also, the want must propel our protagonist into action.
Characterization comes a little later, but for now we need our
reader to buy into his/her need. Let's call our
protagonist Protag for brevity and to also allow us to drop
the awkward his/her business.
The simplest way I can describe a plot-line is for Protag
to be standing at the base of a mountain with a want to get to
the top. The desire for climbing Plot-line Mountain could be
anything: the pure joy of standing at the top; a love object
waiting there; or a pointer to the Holy Grail.
But we must make winning the mountaintop Protag's
most desperate need. If Protag doesn’t really care, why
should the reader care? And the need must remain upmost in
Protag's mind until either the goal is reached, or Protag
is defeated, or the want is replaced by something more
Okay, the most obvious way for Protag to get to the top is
to hop in a Humvee, yank the sucker into four-wheeling, and
plow straight up the mountain side. The thing is,
there's no conflict here. We might as well drink beer in
front of the TV.
So what we must do is to put someone in Protag's way,
like an antagonist. This is the snarling beast from hell who
is against us just because we are really nice guys, good
looking, stout-hearted, brilliant, brave, and humble. The
beast could be a man, woman, Satan, the Gods, fate, the
weather, or the mountain itself. The beast could even be the
doubt that lingers in Protag's own mind. And it must
always remain in doubt whether Protag is going to make it to
the top or not. In fact, failure may be Protag's fate.
What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether Protag
wins or loses, but how well Protag plays the game.
On the way to the top Protag must continually face
obstacles and overcome them, growing stronger mentally if not
physically. We all want to be a winner. So each time Protag
scales another barrier, showing guts, tenacity and
ingenuity--traits we all believe we have in our best
selves--the more intense is the reader's desire to see
In Plot part 2, we'll take up the need for the
obstacles to vary in intensity, to occasionally break in
protagonist's favor, and above all, they must be
Peter E. Abresch - BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated
July 27, 2014
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