Plotting: The Tangled Web We Weave
The principles I am about to summarize here are universal. They have been relied on and articulated famously - by Aristotle, Maugham, Harold Bloom ... Sure, you might decide to be an innovator, and throw it all away, but at least, before you do, be certain that you know what you are dispensing with.
To illustrate, I also give a few examples of books and movies with the relevant plot structure. So, here you go.
1) The Basics: Links in a Chain
Start by determining your end-point. What's it going to be?
* They get married.
* Everybody dies.
* The new dawn of a brave new world.
That's where you have to get to - your end. If you want your readers to stay with you on the journey from start to finish, every single thing that happens in the story HAS TO MOVE THE STORY FORWARD. This is the plainest approach to plotting, and there are certainly variations on the theme, but these are the basics.
* Little Red Riding Hood
* Sex and the City (the first movie)
* Star Wars
* Anna Karenina
When you sit down to write a story in this linear fashion, all you have to do is mark the pit stops. The simplest, by far, is Romance. At the start, they hook up. At the end, they get married. In between, they shag, and have two break-ups: one minor, to give them something to do and foreshadow the biggie, and the Hiroshima-type blow-up, that they have to painstakingly put behind them in time for the wedding.
For a quest story, it's only one point that you have to be truly creative about: the initial catastrophe. That's what sets your whole plot in motion. Now, until the very end, you just have to sort through the debris and find a way to put it all back together (hopefully, even better than it was before).
* Lord of the Rings
* The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
* Harry Potter
Read a lot. The more you read, the more apparent will it become to you that, "Wait, awesome idea: how about he suddenly discovers that she is his long-lost sister," or "I've got it: suddenly, this God shows up and saves the day," are
i) fairly unoriginal, as plotting goes;
ii) kind of dumb.
Linear is nice and simple. If you are happy with it, great. But you might decide that "simple" is for sissies and want to change it up a bit. So.
2) The Wrinkles in Time
Write down your progression of events on a long strip of paper. Now try folding it. Or cut out pieces and rearrange them. You can always create dramatic effects by leaving out a chunk. And then referring to what happened in the portion of the story you haven't told. You can make the reader work for it - piece together the mystery of what happened during the time you have chosen to leave out of the story. Some of the best books have used this technique to great effect
* Hamlet (the entire murder of Hamlet's father happens outside the play; the play is structured around Hamlet trying to figure out what happened).
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