Story Foundations – Part 2: What is Plot?

Hey there, storybuilders.

It has come to our attention that some of you (all of us) are struggling to focus, buckle down, and get writing. It is a problem of pandemic proportions (SORRY) but, luckily, one that has a fairly simple 4-part treatment.

Voila: The Foundations Series, ripped and recycled from our Couch to 5K Words course.  Join us on a journey to build a rock solid base to your approach to storytelling, writing, and getting the fuck on with it. Ready. Let’s go…

This is part two of the foundation series in this course, giving you a vocabulary, a scaffolding, and a set of tools to keep your writing (vaguely) on track, even when you’re in the flailing mess stage.

Previously we looked at how all stories are stories of change, and how intuitive the links between the physical and the emotional changes are once you really get into it.

Today we’re going to see how those changes build up into a thing we call plot, and how you can nudge the changes in the right direction to get you story flowing.

So ,first things first: what the frickedydooda actually is plot?

It’s easy to bang on about plotting or planning or pantsing but actually if you don’t even know what a plot is then you’re a bit stuffed.
Plot is simply the interconnected series of events that takes your character from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.

From Holy Shit Stuff Has Gone Weird all the way to Stuff Is Less Weird And I Have Learned A Valuable Lesson.

From A to Z, via the rest of the alphabet.

And interconnected is the operative word here. A bunch of random happenings isn’t enough. Thing 1 causes Thing 2 causes Thing 3 causes Thing 4.

Gif of a man opening a large blue box with 'things' written on the side
  1. The hero’s life changes and they have a problem to solve
  2. They go on an adventure to try to solve the problem
  3. The meet someone or learn something that helps them solve the problem
  4. They live happily – or unhappily – ever after

(*Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots is worth a skim if you’re so narratologically inclined, but only bother with the first half.)
Another way to look at plot it is to consider that all stories are iterations of, or a response to, the stories that came before.

  • Wide Sargasso Sea was Jean Rhys’s response to Jane Eyre.
  • David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a response to If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino.
  • Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake retells a whole bunch of bible stories.
  • Bridget Jone’s Diary is Pride and Prejudice
  • Harry Potter is Star Wars

Which is all great and interesting and nice in theory, but what does it mean in practice?

Lemme tell you a leetle secret. About 8,000 years ago when I sat my English GCSE, one of the literature papers included a creative element, during which time we were supposed to write a story from a prompt. As a little neurotic summer-born I panicked at this question and didn’t know what to do. And then in the nick of time it hit me. I was going to wholesale rip off the episode of Star Trek: TNG I had watched the night before instead of revising. The starship became a boat, the characters became pirates, the plot probably involved slightly less super futuristic technology and more swashbuckling, but fundamentally the structure was the same – if memory serves it was a classic quest kind of set up.

Dear Reader, I got an A*.

(I also have to tell you I knackered it all up by studying sciences and maths for another six years until I was utterly miserable and it was another four years after that until I got back round to writing but that’s another story entirely shhh now back on topic…)

What all this rambling means in practice is that it is completely and utterly fine to wholesale rip off the plot of a classic story or fairy tale. In fact, it’s pretty much expected.

Just to be clear:

PLEASE DO NOT PLAGIARISE SOMEONE ELSE’S HARD WORK AND CLAIM IT AS YOUR OWN. 

But if you want to take that whole thing about Abraham taking Isaac up a hill to sacrifice him before being like loljk gonna circumcise you instead, and turn it into story about menstruation envy and the need for blood ritual in modern times? GO. FOR. IT.

When it comes to plotting it is super, super helpful to have a backlog of classic stories at your disposal so you can ask yourself: what would Shakespeare do? What would Morrison do? What did the Norse Gods do? (spoiler: shag and murder everyone).

Which leads us nicely on to today’s exercise:

DECONSTRUCT A CLASSIC

Set your timer for 15 MINUTES.

Then grab a fresh piece of paper/open a new document and list 10 of your fave classics. Fairy tales, myths, legends, whatever. A bit o’ Cinderella, a Bible story here and there, something to do with King Arthur. It’s all good.

And in the time you’ve got left, start going through each one and fitting it into the four point plan we mentioned above. Here it is again for reference.

  1. The hero’s life changes and they have a problem to solve
  2. They go on an adventure to try to solve the problem
  3. The meet someone or learn something that helps them solve the problem
  4. They live happily – or unhappily – ever after

When you’ve run out of time, take a closer look and marvel at how pretty much any story can be reduced in this way. Try it with your favourite film. Your favourite book. And, natch, your own story ideas.

Or take one of your classic 4 Point Plans and see if you can alter and tweak and nudge it into something brand-new-but-familiar. Different characters. Different era. Different timeline. Different culture. Different problems. Different stakes. Use the core themes or moral of the original but make it your own. It’s not plagiarism. It’s ADAPTATION. And all the cool kids are doing it.

Plus, by using a classic, you’re free to use any text that’s in the public domain. For example, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway enters the public domain on 1 Jan 2021, along with Tarzan, 1984, Animal Farm, and The Master and Margarita. Oh, the possibilities…

So go forth and dismantle every plot you come across. Then build some of your own.

Check out the rest of the Foundations Series (Parts 3 & 4 coming soon) to complete your plotting journey and make it all the way to The End…

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