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What is a plot --?

So, exactly what is plot?

The simplest possible answer is that a plot is a framework on which events hang, like laundry pegged to a line. The events are plot elements, and the line they're pegged to is a timeline. So, what is plot? It's key events suspended in passing time.

Picture it as the scaffolding which goes up before the building. It's the steel or timber structure which is built on the concrete foundation pad of a new house. It won't start looking like a house for a while yet, but without the framework, the house will pretty quickly fall down around your ears!

'What is a plot' is the most fundamental question an aspiring storyteller can ask, and although it seems like (and is) a simple question, the answer can get surprisingly deep. The simplest questions are the best, because they get after the roots of things. When you understand the basics, of art or music, architecture or writing, you don't have to remember them any longer. Well-understood basics become part of who you are.

A plot is much more than a collection of events tagged together to make a sequence. Home videos are a good example of what is a plot ... and what isn't! Imagine you've been given a bundle of disks with scores of files, each with a nonsense name, something along the lines of DVC007625.MPG. The name means nothing. Each clip encapsulates an event, and you can always string them together and make a sequence, but the result is semi-gibberish.

At this point, the factor missing from this sequence of video clips is a story, no matter how simple. A story with a sense of time, which ties events together.

If you had the patience to take these videos and watch them in a jumble, you might start to see patterns. For example, you spotted ten assorted shots of Mom packing a picnic basket while Dad rummaged under the hood, checking oil and engine fluids. Another five shots involved the kids loading skateboards and toys into the car. Then, there are six shots captured through-the-windscreen as the car made its way to the park, and stopped by the lake.

Things are starting to make a kind of sense ... Yep, you're seeing what is a plot in the simplest sense of the word. Events strung together on a timeline. What's going on in the individual video clips is made coherent by the order the clips are viewed. The sense of time and place makes the difference. Events are no longer jumbled; they tell a story.

The simplest plots are absolutely linear. They're a daisy-chain of events which move from the Beginning to the End and tell a story of, say, a roadtrip, a wedding, or a party. A simple laundry line will do here: events are pegged to it, and you're done. You can stand back and study the satisfying results of what is a plot so simple, really, it's typical of the read-along picture books enjoyed by very young children.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a story of this simplicity. We all begin our reading careers with them. If you're intending to write for young children, the timeline approach is perfect.

Any timeline has three major segments: Beginning. Middle. End.

Most important, when you're considering the question, 'What is a plot?', is to develop a sense of time, because time takes events and makes them coherent. Without time, there would be no coherent plot, simple or otherwise!

The Beginning is the point at which your readers get a grasp on the when, the who, the where, and the why. Very soon in the story, you need to establish the facts. For example:

  • WHEN: This plot line begins in 1864.
  • WHO: This story involves a brother and sister, James and Sally MacLean.
  • WHERE: The story begins in Galveston, Texas.
  • WHY: James and Sally have come to town to rescue their aged Aunt Marie.

The when, who, where and why, give your readers an anchor point. As soon as these values are established, you can take off in any direction with only your imagination as a guide ... but another good answer to 'what is a plot?', is that a plot starts out as an empty timeline. Imagine an empty laundry line. It's going to be full soon! So long as events are pegged to their timeline in order ... you've got a plot.

The early part of the story will be spent in setting the scene, describing the characters and location, defining what the problems are. In the above story, you'd be talking about the effects of the American Civil War on the ordinary people, many of whom who lost everything. The Beginning of the story doesn't have to be a third of the length of the whole book, incidentally, just because the timeline is divided into three parts. It can be just the first couple of chapters, setting up the action which will hold your readers to the end. But the Beginning is extremely important, because it's here where readers decide it they like your characters, and your writing style, enough to keep on reading!

The Middle is a critical part of any plot line. It's where you can most easily lose your readers! Notice how a laden laundry line sags downward in the middle with the weight of wet clothes hanging off it. Plot lines and clothes lines are sadly alike. The more stuff you hang on them, the more they start to drag.

Have you ever started a book and never finished it? Was it slow, even boring, in the middle? How about a movie during which you went to sleep because nothing interesting (that is, interesting to you, specifically ... other viewers might have been thrilled) was happening. The plot line will always slow down in the middle as the story grows more complex. So —

Ask again, 'Just what is a plot, anyway?' It's more than a timeline in three segments which makes coherent sense of events. The passage of time in the real world creates just such sequences, in which school semesters drag on forever, camping trips in the rain are never over fast enough, winter nights are weeks long. All these sequences are sensible, coherent. They're more than likely also boring!

A plot line is artificial. You, the writer, create it. You set the pace, get it started with then when, who, where, and why, and in the middle events are shuffled like a deck of cards, traded and tossed out, till what's left is just right. 'Time line' turns into 'plot line' when you deliberately take reality by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake.

In the middle of the story, 'what is a plot?' Is a question not so easily answered. It's building bricks, elements, characters, ideas, issues, themes, problems faced by the characters, troubles they either overcome -- or don't. The middle is the part where people say 'the plot thickens.' For instance:
  • Aunt Marie won't move from her comfortable home. Her husband is aged and seriously ill, he can't safely be moved and she won't leave him.
  • Sally meets an old boyfriend, Robert, who has joined the Confederate Army ... being a pacifist, she is shocked both by Robert's decision to fight, the side he's chosen — and the fact she still loves him. James and Robert used to be friends, but now they share only enmity.
  • Robert loves Sally enough to risk helping her, bringing doctors to treat old Uncle John ... and it turns out, old John is hiding a secret. On his deathbed he tells Sally where he hid his fortune in bullion, before the war broke out.
  • Sally tells Robert — and suddenly the local Confederate Army officer, who turns out to be Robert's older cousin Will, gets to hear of it. Will determines to use his military resources to find the bullion and use it for the war effort, even though it was intended to be the MacLean family's security and livelihood after the war. James is incensed, and confronts Colonel Will Tyrone; they argue and Tyrone shoots him.
  • James might easily die if he gets no medical help ... Uncle John has been buried ... Robert is a junior officer and must go with Tyrone's cavalry column to loot the MacLean fortune, or else be executed for desertion.
  • Now, only Sally can get her aunt and her ailing brother away, out of the war, but she has no money, no resources. All she has is a few old acquaintances from years ago, one of whom is a 'free gentleman of color' from New Orleans, who owns a boat...

What is a plot, indeed! It's a mountain of ideas and themes, people and relationships. The above paragraph was jotted down off the cuff, It's not an existing movie or novel, but it could easily become one. The whole thing began with the when, where, who and why, which framed the beginning for the story. Then the bricks began to go up around the framework.

This is a plot line. More than a timeline, much more than a sequence. And the factor missing from the above plot is, of course, the ending. The last segment of the line on which all the events are pegged in their best order.

The ending is even more important than the middle. It's so crucial, we'll be tackling it separately. The ending is where you, the writer, must 'deliver the goods,' leave the reader with a feeling of satisfaction, and a thirst for your next book. You want to know that this reader will actually be looking for you, the next time they're in the store, or they'll be at, searching on your name.

This article is not actually about thrashing out plots. We'll look at working out how this one ends elsewhere! For now, let's set out what we know, and we'll be good to go.

So, 'what is a plot?' It's made up of a timeline which has three clearly distinct segments: beginning, middle and end. Inside of those segments, it's a flurry of 'elements' ranging from issues and themes, people and relationships, confrontations, problems ... life and death. But whereas real time, in the real world, creates sequences of events which might not lend themselves to being written up, faithfully, as thrilling stories, 'plotting' is artificial.

Plotting is the first job a writer does: pulling all the elements into order, shuffling, discarding, trading, to turn 'reality' into 'plot line.' And the results should be gripping enough to catch and hold your readers. A good plot also involves a great ending ... and in the another article, on plot lines and their development, we'll tackle this, head-on...

What is plot development, and how do writers use it to build unforgettable story endings?

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