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My Plot Development Process

Part 5: What Is "Plot" Really?

Once upon a time I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. At last I am answering the question, in this miniseries about my plot development process. This week I'll be talking about what "plot" actually is.

The Difficulty of Defining "Plot"

To develop a project consistently and in accordance with your artistic vision, you generally need to have a good understanding of what it is you're doing, and what your tools are, and while it might seem like the concept of "plot" is a given that everybody understands, I disagree.

Previously in this miniseries I defined plot as "important events that coherently propel a story from its beginning to its conclusion," but with the caveat that that definition was merely a placeholder born of the convenience of brevity. I expect most people would nonetheless accept this definition of "plot" and consider the matter settled. The reason I don't is that it isn't functional. It doesn't help you to actually plot. And when understood in this typical fashion, I think the concept of "plot" is mechanical and leads to derivative, tacked-on, and oftentimes boring plots. While poor or inexperienced writers may benefit from the exercise of checking whether their story events have a coherent motion to them, that doesn't actually have to do with plot development so much as with story boundary definition. That's because when a story lacks motion it's much more likely to be a problem of too much extraneous stuff. (And note the word "extraneous." My own style of writing is very rich in "stuff," but I do a lot of editing to make sure that it isn't extraneous.)

(Rant: I think the problem of having poor story boundaries is an incredibly common weakness among writers and bears a significant portion of the responsibility for the fact that the prevailing conventional wisdom of our day is the abhorrent mantra of "Cut, cut, cut.")

So what is "plot," then? That turns out to be difficult to answer. For one thing, the common definition of "plot" is misleading, and, once accepted, not only discourages a person from searching for a more satisfying definition but actively stands in their way if they try. For another, "plot" often gets confused with "story." Third, a plot pervades a story but isn't necessarily present in every single event in that story.

The first problem is self-explanatory, but let's look at the other two problems.

Story vs. Plot: Redux

Last time I defined story as "the work taken as a whole: the complete product, the full objective sum of the experience," and noted that it is an abstraction that exceeds the sum of its parts. And I gave plot as the aforementioned "important events that coherently propel a story from its beginning to its conclusion."

Here's a fuller, more mature look at my conception of "story":

Story (Qualitative): A coherent, self-contained work defined as the conceptually coherent displacement (i.e., quantity) created by the account of a causal or otherwise interrelated progression of events. This is what most people mean when they say "story." Stories are told for the enrichment, diversion, or entertainment brought by experiencing this coherent quantity. Stories are experienced perceptually: They may be perceived where no one intended to create them, and they may have no deliberate author. A sunset can be a story. A story is always "about" something, always has a "point," as distinguished from a mere description, account, etc., which may have no intrinsic meaning and likely serves only to communicate, contemplate, or inform.

Story (Structural): Same as story (qualitative), but viewed in technical terms as the holistic sum of its manipulable parts—including exposition, description, dialogue, diction, style and tone, pacing, plotting, characterization, thematic exploration and development, foreshadowing, figurative language, imagery, and so on—which together form an abstract whole that transcends its literal structure. This transcendental or holistic quality occurs as a result of the fact that stories are perceptually experienced, as mentioned, and subjectively constructed: Functionally speaking, a story, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Those things which we call stories—such as books and games and movies—are more like "prepackaged story catalysts." The true story always occurs in our own minds, subject to our own preferences and judgments. That's why a given "story catalyst" tends to provoke such different reactions depending on who you ask.

In the qualitative sense of "story" you can see how the confusion with plot might occur: A "conceptually coherent displacement created by the…progression of events" can easily be rephrased in terms of my placeholder definition of plot: a "important events that coherently propel a story…" This confusion is a result of the fact that a plot typically pervades its story. (More on that later.)

Meanwhile, looking at the structural sense of "story," you can see that plot is just one variable in a much larger equation. This explains how stories often seem not to have plots, or can appear to exist independently of their plots: With so many other structural elements to draw upon, surely a plot is—in the strictest sense—optional to a story, yes?

So, to many people, a "plot" is interchangeable with the story containing it, yet at the same time it can contradictorily be so small or insignificant as to be optional in a story.

Plot Defined in Full

At last we come to something at the heart of plot development: My definition of plot itself—the full definition that I personally consider to be functional, but with a second, structural definition as well.

Plot (Functional): The engine that dynamically generates and regulates the coherent conceptual displacement created by the account of a causal or otherwise interrelated progression of events (i.e., a story).

Plot (Structural): The full sum of state changes in a story, minus those which do not contribute to the coherent conceptual displacement, and excluding all static contents of the story.

The structural sense of plot may at first blush look like a wonkier restatement of the generally accepted definition. It isn't and I'll return to that point later. First, however, let's look at the functional sense.

The Functional Sense of Plot: The Great Engine

My functional definition of plot may seem to imply that stories write themselves. But they don't, right? Actually, I would say they do. A story exists in the mind of the person who perceives it, as a conceptual entity. The creation of that conceptualization is "the writing of the story." Putting aside that in many cases the information is fed to us by a prepackaged catalyst (e.g., a book)—in which cases the word synthesize may be more precise than create—we only ever create our own stories. Stories write themselves inasmuch as we write them without deliberately meaning to.

The plot of a story exists as a result of our mind's identification of the coherent conceptual displacement itself. Plot is not something that can be tacked on. Plot is an intrinsic, fundamental component of its story. It is much more integral and pervasive than we tend to think of "plot" as being. That's because true plot is so much more sublime than "important events that coherently propel a story." All action that contributes to the conceptual displacement is a part of the plot.

Most character development is a form of plotting. So is most thematic development. Pacing is also heavily intertwined with plot. Many other components of a story entwine with the plot as well—just as, say, diction often entwines with character development.

To put it another way, plot is the primary action mode of a story. As long as action is involved, the odds are good that you're working with the plot in some capacity.

Whatever a story is about, then, inasmuch as it consists of action of any kind, it is expressed through plot.

This is where I think my definition shines. That is to say, this is where I think my definition is functional, useful, and helpful to writers: It suggests a specific course of action. To conceive of plot as a dynamic engine invites the author to mind the question of "How do I establish what this story is about?" Part of the answer to that question is to develop a series of conceptually coherent actions. And when you do that, you have the golden context: You're doing it to establish what the story is about.

A good plot, therefore, will manifest as a distinctive story with a clear purpose. (To you, the author—not necessarily to your audience; that's a topic for another time.) The question of "What happens?" is always subordinate to the question of "What is supposed to happen?" If you don't have a "supposed to" yet, then you need to go back to an earlier stage in the plot development process—to points of inspiration, or plot-stealing, or cold design.

For Example: Spade Meets Celithemis

The "supposed to happen" here is that we meet Spade, a Sodish urchin thief who will eventually go on to fall in love with Celithemis and become a member of Silence's Band of Hearts and Minds. When I wrote these scenes, the process of plotting them was straightforward, because I knew exactly what was supposed to happen. My understanding of the specific plot—made possible by my understanding of plot in general—set a clear course for me to follow.

That's all this week's article is about: Defining what plot actually is. This isn't a step in the plot development process so much as a prerequisite to that process.

The Structural Sense of Plot: Distinguishing Plot from Non-Plot

I mentioned earlier that a plot pervades a story but isn't necessarily present in every single event in that story. I also mentioned that my structural sense of "plot" has greater depth than may readily be apparent. Now those two strands come together in an exposition on what a plot isn't.

I gave my structural definition as "The full sum of state changes in a story, minus those which do not contribute to the coherent conceptual displacement, and excluding all static contents of the story." This raises two obvious points: What are those actions that do not contribute to the conceptual displacement, and what do I mean by "static contents"?

State changes that do not contribute to the conceptual displacement are not a part of the plot. Therefore, they serve other story purposes. Oftentimes, environmental changes are a good example: the changing of day to night, or the changing of the weather from hot to cold. Background actions are also a good example: the bustle on a city street, or the whirring of the engine as a character drives a car.

(It should be noted that all of the aforementioned examples can potentially entwine with the plot, but they typically don't.)

Similarly, the static contents of a story are like state changes that don't pertain to the conceptual displacement: Specifically, they are states without a change. For instance, if the weather is given at one point as being hot and is never otherwise noted, that's a static property.

It's important to understand plot in its structural sense because of how notoriously hard it can be to pick apart which events are part of the plot and which aren't.

Tune in Next Weekend

So that's what plot actually is. You can see that it's tied much more deeply to a story than merely consisting of "important events." Plot is all about the purposeful action of a story. It is the engine that generates and regulates that action. In a sense, plot is much more "locked in" than it may initially seem, if you have a good sense of what your "supposed to happens" are. (And you should.)

By having a good, functional concept of what "plot" is, plot development becomes a lot more straightforward. Instead of asking "What's going to happen?" you get to ask "How do I establish what this story is about (i.e., how do I establish that which is supposed to happen)?" and that's a much, much easier and more rewarding question to grapple with.

Next weekend we'll be taking another break from my plot development miniseries, as I've decided that, since the miniseries is running so long, it's better to break it up with other topics in the Curious Tale Saturdays slot. Therefore, next weekend will be a grab bag. Tune in and find out what it is!

This miniseries will return in two weeks, where I'll talk about the concept of a "plot-driven" story.

Also, a note to my readers: Most of you are aware of this already, but I'm having some serious health problems at the moment and may at any time have to go on a medical hiatus. For the time being I'm still trying to publish the Regular Features and maintain all the normalcy I can, but I'm not sure what's in the cards. So when I say, for instance, that this miniseries will return in two weeks, I guess what I really mean is that it'll return in two articles from now, whenever that may be.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!