November 28, 2005

Notes: Story Structure … in brief

SPELT 2002
Workshop 1: Teaching Story Writing


What do we mean by Plot? Simply, plot is WHAT HAPPENS in a short story or novel. No more, no less. It isn't description or dialogue, and it certainly isn't theme. Theme is the subject of the story e.g. loneliness, revenge, jealousy, self-discovery. In the best stories, plot grows organically out of character, rather than being imposed from above. Specifically, plot is the result of choices made by characters in a story, especially the story's protagonist, or main character.

Renowned writer Anne Lamott ('Bird by Bird,' 'Operating Instructions') created a mnemonic device to help writers remember how to structure plots that work:

Begin your story as close to the inciting incident as you can.

Provide only enough Background at first so that the Action doesn't confuse your readers. They don't need to know everything, just enough to follow along.

Conflict constitutes what your protagonist wants, but doesn't have. It doesn't matter what your protagonist needs, as long as he or she needs it badly. The best Conflicts are dramatic and specific. Don't write about a teenage girl who's looking for love; write about a teenage girl seeking her first kiss. For one thing, focusing on the kiss will focus your storytelling and your readers' attention. Even more important, those readers will know without question at the end of the story whether the heroine has attained what she wants or not. Hamlet seeks to overcome his late-adolescent malaise, but what makes Shakespeare's play dramatic is his need to kill his uncle to avenge the murder of his father.

Conflict IS story, and, conversely, without Conflict, you have no story.

Development is the series of attempts made by the protagonist to resolve his or her Conflict. These attempts should increase with regard to drama and/or suspense, and ideally, each step in the Development should tell us a little bit more about the protagonist. Development can be an emotional, spiritual or intellectual journey. Often, it is a combination of all of these.

Here's where the mnemonic device needs further development of its own, since 'End' isn't an especially helpful term; expand it to include 3 more C's: Crisis, Climax, Consequences.

1. CRISIS is often the final stage in a story's Development. In the best stories, it involves a choice — and not simply a choice between good and evil, since given that choice, we'd all pick good. Crisis is a choice between two options of equal, or nearly equal, value. Crisis is, by definition, the most dramatic point in your entire story.

2. CLIMAX is not necessarily the most dramatic point, despite the word's colloquial meaning. Instead, Climax is the resolution of Conflict. Climax is the point of no return. At the Climax of a story there is simply no turning back; the protagonist is powerless to change his fate. Think of Romeo's suicide, the Climax of Shakespeare's play not because it's dramatic, but because it prevents him and Juliet from living together in love.

3. CONSEQUENCES is what is left when the Conflict of a story has been resolved. How have your protagonist and his world changed — or stubbornly refused to change — as a result of the story? The French call this part of the story the 'denouement' or 'unraveling.' Take the example of the uncut grass next door at the conclusion of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which indicates quite literally that the landscape of the book has been altered forever by its Action.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, you aren't required to use this structure in telling stories. But if you do, however, your stories, novellas and novels are sure to work. That is, when people are done reading [one of your] pieces of fiction, they will feel as if they've been told a story.


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