As far as I’m concerned, plot is the trickiest element in fiction writing. It can be tremendously difficult, because unless you’re writing a very short story indeed, it’s a multi-layered thing, and getting it right in one place doesn’t mean you have any idea what to do with the rest. If you’re not good at plot, you’re often not including enough layers, or they may not be the right layers. And if you are good at plot, it’s quite likely you’re one of those people who deals with plot intuitively, rather than consciously planning it out. Which works fine right up until you have a problem with your plot and can’t interact with it consciously and deliberately enough to fix it.
There are lots of different ways to address plot, and I’ve covered some elements that will help you out in my posts on pacing and the negative point. Right now, I want to talk about plot and subplot at the most basic level. Most of us were taught in public school that a plot consists of situation, complications, climax, and conclusion. For my purposes as an editor, I want to go back even a level above that.
“Plot” is secret writing code for “something happens.” It has to be something interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, but relatable enough that they’re caught up in the fate your characters are struggling for or against. Let’s use the movie The Mask as an example. At one level, the plot could be described as “character gets a magic mask that fixes everything in his life, then gets rid of it again.” At a more relatable, human level, you could reduce it down to “dorky guy gets everything he ever wished for, but at a cost.” Both tell you what happens in the movie in fewer than twenty words, but the second description contains the emotional cues more likely to draw you into the story.
The overarching plot of your story is considered the A plot. Generally speaking, you’ll also have at least one major subplot, the B plot. In modern Western fiction that isn’t specifically genre-targeted, your B plot is almost always more character- or emotion-driven than the A plot. In The Mask, the B plot is “a local crime boss tries to steal the mask and get revenge on the protagonist.”
In screenwriting, your A plot will almost always get more screen time than your B plot. In novel writing, this will usually be true, but not always. If you need to know which is which, your A plot is the most important plot in your story–the one without which the story would simply collapse.
This is where subplots have a chance to multiply and things get interesting. If you feel your book might not have enough action, you can deliberately choose to add an action plot. If neither your A or B plot is a love story or other relationship between characters, you might add one. If you don’t already have a villain, you might insert one who brings with them subplots of their own. Sometimes, your editor looks at you and says “You never follow up on this thread, and by the way, whatever happened to the shark?” And then you try to come up with a subplot that has something to do with sharks, which also ties up that loose end.
When you’re adding in additional subplots, you want to be careful not to get bogged down in them–if you’re putting too much time into them and not into your major plot lines, you’ll end up with either pacing that’s really off or a book that isn’t the book you intended to write. Likewise, too many subplots risks complicating things for the reader. Keep in mind that the purpose of plot is to make something happen. If you already have enough happening, sometimes you have to drop a subplot.
(On the plus side, those dropped plots sometimes make great freebies–short stories or extra sex scenes or deleted scenes with “DVD commentary”–to give away to help you sell your finished project.)
Every scene you write should advance one of your plots. By preference, one of your major plots, even if it’s also applicable to a minor subplot. If you find yourself writing a scene that doesn’t advance one of your plots, look at that scene and ask yourself what it could be doing for you. If the answer is “nothing,” look long and hard at whether you really need that scene. It may contain your favorite line or an image you’ve had in mind since the brainstorming stage, and it may still not be a scene that belongs in the story.
There will always be exceptions to the rule. Going back to The Mask, the “Cuban Pete” scene/dance number was cut by the studio three separate times. The creators had a certain number of “overrides,” and every time the studio took that scene out because it isn’t really doing anything, the creators put it back in. And it is potentially the best, certainly the most entertaining, and definitely the most memorable scene in the entire movie.
If you have that type of the scene, you will probably need to stick to your guns when an editor challenges you on it. On the flip side, exceptions are exceptions for a reason–they don’t happen very often. Don’t assume you’ve got a “pointless” scene worth keeping in every story. If you find yourself in that position, the right way to deal with it is to ask yourself what could go into that scene to contribute to character development, plot, or other forward motion. Most of the time, you’ll be able to “fix” an otherwise-pointless scene that way.
reprinted/reblogged by permission at Storm Moon Press