I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.
Will I begin it?
That’s all that’s in it.
Irish nursery rhyme.
What’s the story?
Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.
Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
man vs. nature
man vs. man
man vs. the environment
man vs. machines/technology
man vs. the supernatural
man vs. self
man vs. god/religion
Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.
A typical story structure might be plotted thus:
Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.
Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.
The main character is affected by the disturbance.
The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.
Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.
Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.
These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.
The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.
Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.
The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.
A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.
That’s all that’s in it.