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How to tame the beast called plot

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write about plot. The word plot used to scare me more than the time I was ten years old and my cousin dragged me to the local haunted house our little town hosted for Halloween.

I screamed my head off (cliches are okay at Halloween when the veil between good and bad prose is thinnest)—monsters lurching out of the dark, re-enactments of beheadings and hangings, cobwebs tangling in my hair, but when a hand reached out and grabbed my ankle in that dark hallway, I let loose a blood-curdling scream that would make the director of “Saw” proud. (Not that I would ever see said movie). I nearly trampled all the people in line in front of me to get out of there. I’ve never been in a haunted house since. To this day, I still shiver when somebody mentions haunted house and Halloween in the same breath.

But I digress…. Notice, I said the word plot used to scare me. That was before I started reading James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure.As a newbie to writing fiction, I’d get confused about the word plot—what does it mean exactly? It sounds like some exotic species of plant that needs to be cared for in an exact, specific way or all will be lost.

I’ve taken classes in plot—learned about Aristotle’s poetics, Greek tragedies, and the hero’s journey. But how does that all fit into plotting a novel? Fortunately, Mr. Bell’s book lays it out simply and elegantly. He even has a short outline showing where all the hallmarks of the hero’s journey lie within the three-act structure.

Now when I think of the word plot and my head starts spinning, I take a deep breath and say to myself: plot is simply what happens next, in a particular order. It’s the series of events in a story. When I get stuck, I ask myself or my characters, “What happens next?”

Granted, there is a certain order of events for the best effect in your story, but Mr. Bell’s book will help you organize those as well. Instead of calling them “plot points,” he calls them “doorways.” For example, in Act I there needs to be some event that propels your protagonist from his normal life into the main conflict of the novel. He needs to be pushed through the doorway. In my current manuscript, my protagonist is called home but she doesn’t want to go. When her grandfather disappears, this propels her to go through the doorway and enter into the main action/conflict of the story—Act II.

The first time I read through Mr. Bell’s book, I used a highlighter and sticky notes to tag areas I wanted to take another look at. As I read through it a second time, I’m making notes and filling in the blanks for my own novel. I still don’t have all my plot figured out but at least I no longer fear the word itself. Most fear is usually a fear of the unknown. So if the word plot has ever scared you, I guarantee you won’t be frightened once you get to know it better.

If you’d like to see another post about conquering fears click here.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t know how many times I’ve referred to Kal Bashir’s for hero’s journey insights.

    November 2, 2011
    • Thanks Jenny. Looks wonderful and he even uses a whiteboard. Call me old fashioned, but I love whiteboards!

      November 2, 2011

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