Betty (brown_betty) wrote,

Let's talk about books!

Today's topic: plot!

A week or so ago, norah posted on asking how writers write plot. She discussed the difference between 'plot' and 'premise,' saying that she can do 'premise,' which is "The one where..." but gets stuck on plot.

Norah said that the logistics bog her down, but I in fact am perfectly at home in logistics. Ask anyone who has ever written with me; I am liable to spend the entire scene working out how they got from A to B, and who was carrying the thingamajig, and who made the reservations, and never actually get them to B because I am so busy working out the mechanics. So I don't think logistics is plot, either.

TNH has said, on the subject of plot: "Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature," and I am persuaded she is absolutely correct. You can tell a perfectly good story with no plot, and you probably do it every time you come home and say "Oh man, guess what happened to me today!" If you check out any number of old (>1000yrs) religious texts, there will be a great deal of story, and no real plot. More literarily and currently, Pamela Dean's Tam Lin has no plot to speak of for the first 400 pages, so I think we can say that if plot was the reason we read books, no one would have finished that one, and yet I and many other people love it.

My two observations on how I do plot:

1. Have a co-writer. Or at least have someone to talk it out with. The key to brainstorming plot is the word 'maybe.' "And then maybe they go to Paris!" "And then maybe she loses her ticket!" "And then maybe someone falls through the roof!" The maybe lets you float ideas, see if you like them, and let them go if they don't help.

2. Leave loose ends. This is writing advice from James MacDonald, somewhere in the archives of Making Light, and I am afraid I have lost the link, so this is from memory, but MacDonald says, basically, that in the first draft of your story, leave things loose which mighty attract plot. I believe his example is, if your protag gets on the train carrying the mcguffin in a briefcase, have someone else get on the train carrying the same briefcase. Maybe nothing will happen, but maybe something will!

My example: for those who have read our The Underwire Job, I put in "His socks are sorted by colour. And there was a cat licking his computer screen. From the inside," because I thought Parker describing this screen-saver would be funny. Em picked up on the cats, and decided that their plan should incorporate kittens. (We had no idea what the plan was going to be when we started. (Sorry for blowing our secrets, Em)). I decided that they story should have, as part of its ending "And also I have adopted all these cats and don't know what to do with them!" and Em wrote that scene. The entire premise of The Cat Burglar Job came about more or less by accident, as you can see.

Further ruminations on the subject of plot:

The literary conventions, so far as I know, on the subject of plot are that there should be, 1) a conflict, 2) rising action, resolution, denouement, and 3) a protagonist involved in the first two. Certain genres come with some of these pre-built, like in romance novels, the protagonist is a woman who is not in a (good) relationship, and the resolution and denouement are when she finally (realizes she) is in a good relationship. Advanced romance writers put in a B plot, and sometimes a C plot, but the A plot is pretty much fixed. In murder mysteries, the conflict is the rupture in the social order that comes with finding a dead body, and the resolution comes with recognizing and punishing the offender, and restoring social order. (Exceptions occur, but, you know, as a rule.) Casefile or MotW shows do roughly the same thing.

The heist movie/story seems exceptional because it is basically all plot: the plot is the thing pulling the story forward, it's all "And then-" It is basically a compact sequence of "and then"s. You can't write a heist story without a plot, because if you did it wouldn't be a heist story.

So, back to the beginning: Let's talk about books!

As part of our investigations into plot, which books can you think of that did plot exceptionally well? Not that you enjoyed the plot, but rather, and insofar as you can distinguish, that the plot was well crafted. This is a difficult question for me, because I don't think I've ever finished a book and thought: "Damn, now that was a plot!" If not exceptionally well, then books which did something interesting or enlightening with plot are also very welcome.

So, the books which occur to me, with descriptions and caveats:

Barry Hughart's Li Kao books: One of the ways these books work is that although they are all mysteries, they are generally a nested set of mysteries which operate by different rules. On one hand, there may be a poisoning, on the other, there may be an angry god. Figuring out which is the innermost and which is the outermost usually leads to the resolution: if the problem is a poisoning which is leading the victim to hallucinate gods, then the poisoning should be dealt with medically; if it's an angry god who is poisoning the victim, the problem should be dealt with theologically. (Example sort-of made-up.) Hughart constructs these very neatly, often with a half dozen layers which must be peeled back to find out the true nature of the crime, so the various "and then"s may be the next twist in the tale, or may be ascending to the next level, where the reader discovers that the earlier mystery was a merely a symptom of the true problem.

Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards books: The way the plot in these books works is that our heroes have a tricksy plan, and then the plan is thwarted and thrown off the rails at every level, new antagonists show up and introduce new complications (which, I think crucially, are always an interference with the original plan, as well as complicating the protagonists' lives in other ways.) In Red Seas, for example, at one point while our heroes are trying to discover if they can rappel down a cliff, a footpad shows up and threatens to cut their ropes unless they throw up their purses. This is basically a scale-model of the entire approach to plot. These books are basically heist-type plots.

Georgette Heyer: (thrown in because I don't want all man-authors writing man-books), the plot is the protagonist trying to live her life in a society which places restrictions on her actions. This is usually not at all acknowledged by the book. (It is possible I am wearing my feminism tin-hat and totally wrong about this, btw. Correct me!) In the course of the book, she meets someone else who recognizes that society/family restricts her, and they fall in love. The plot is based on exploring the way the protag lives a reasonably fulfilling life, and meets her needs and desires despite and because of her society.
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