WRITING TIPS: WHAT IS PLOT?

by Ann Marie Williams © 2020

This week I’m discussing the terms concept, plot, structure, format, and theme. Each is a different attribute of story, but each also affects one another (e.g. structure affects plot, plot affects theme).

So, since that can complicate how we define and understand each term, I’m going to look at each term in turn. I’ll give my explanation of the terms, their roles in storytelling, and how they interrelate with each other.

With that in mind:

Today’s topic: PLOT

What is Plot?

PLOT (AKA STORY)

Plot is the story itself; the events that unfold from start to finish. The plot is what happens in the story, what happens to the characters, how the characters react, and what happens because of those reactions.  A + B = C.  Chicken gets to the road, chicken crosses the road, chicken is on the other side.


PLOT EXAMPLES

Examples will be drawn from It's a Wonderful Life and The Martian.  Caution: There will be spoilers!

Plot example for It’s a Wonderful Life:  George Bailey loses money. George contemplates suicide so his family can receive his life insurance money. Clarence, an angel, shows George that his life is worth more to the world than his insurance money. George learns the value of life and his life.

Plot example for The Martian:  Astronaut botanist Mark Watney works on Mars. Mark gets left alone on Mars. Mark must survive Mars. Mark must escape Mars. Mark escapes Mars.

I know, I know! There is so much more to these stories than what I’ve written above. As there should be. But, these are the backbones, these are the A + B = C.

Of course, plots can be very complex. And often a good story will have multiple plot threads throughout.  But those threads should intertwine and, ultimately, the secondary plots should support the main plot.

For example, a secondary plot thread in It’s a Wonderful Life revolves around George’s relationship with Mary. This is a big part of the story. And even though it isn’t the main thread, it intertwines and supports it because (in part) it paves the way to show how George’s existence changed so many lives (and how those lives enrich his own).

In The Martian, we get multiple threads involving various characters at NASA. While not from Mark’s perspective, these threads are important to the main plot because they help illustrate how difficult it is for Mark to survive and escape Mars. They highlight Mark’s struggles and also his successes.


HOW PLOT INTERRELATES

Plot and Concept

Yesterday, I discussed concept and gave the following examples:

Concept example for It’s a Wonderful Life:  Seeing what the world would be like if you’d never been born.

Concept example for The Martian: A person is stranded on Mars.  Alone.

As you can see, concept is the idea that allows for the plot to exist.

But, even though the plot can’t exist without the concept, there could be many different plots a writer could use to convey any given concept. Which means the writer needs to find the plot that best embodies the story’s corresponding concept.

For example, what if the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life focused on Clarence trying to earn his wings, instead of focusing on George?  While the concept promised would be addressed (we could still see Clarence show George what life would have been like if George had never been born), it wouldn’t be the focus of the story. And that would likely leave audiences feeling unsatisfied.

Could Clarence’s pursuit of wings be its own story, with its own concept and plot?  Sure! And it’s definitely a great subplot of It’s a Wonderful Life that ties in well with George’s story.  But the plot of Clarence trying to earn his wings shouldn’t be the main plot if the concept is about seeing what the world would be like if you’d never been born.

Similarly, what if The Martian focused more on the goings on at NASA instead of how Mark tries to survive on Mars?   Again, the NASA subplot is in the story, it’s great, it adds to the story — but the main focus of the story is Mark: the man who is stranded on Mars.

Plot and Theme

Concept is the idea. Plot is the story. Theme is the message.

Theme is what your story is ultimately trying to say — not what happens in the story, but what it means.

If, for example, The Martian‘s story is about surviving Mars, then that’s what the plot centers around. But its theme is about never giving up. Working the problem.

I won’t discuss theme in detail until the end of the week, but the point I want to make here is that the plot will dictate what your story’s theme turns out to be.

Concept is the idea. Plot is the story. Theme is the message.

Why it can happen. How it happens. What it means. So:

Concept generates plot. The plot serves the concept. The plot conveys theme.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow I’ll take a closer looks at: STRUCTURE. But for now, remember:

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