Posted by John Yeoman on Thursday, March 13, 2014 Under: Libels & Wickedness
Have you ever sought an easy way to plot your stories? Bought plotting software? Believed in gurus who sold you a patented Plot Generator program - plus the guarantee of a Hollywood blockbuster if you followed it?
Eschew them all. If any plotting system is complex it's superfluous.
In fact, there is only one winning plot, in all the stories of the world, and it’s very simple:
Boy meets hamster.For ‘boy’ read any principal character. For ‘hamster’ read any Object of Desire.
Boy loses hamster.
Boy is reunited with hamster (or not).
You want a story that’s longer? Just repeat the pattern above until you reach the desired word length. Does this pattern lack, uh, complexity? No problem. Create a Sub-Plot. Repeat the same hamster pattern in the sub-plot. And switch in a lively episode from the sub-plot whenever your story grows tedious.
Is that really all there is to it? Of course! Take Moby Dick.
Man meets fish.For ‘fish’ read ‘hamster’.
Man loses fish.
Man is reunited with fish, fatally.
Do you want Meaning in your story as well?
So that your readers don’t ask themselves after page one ‘why am I reading about this darn fool hamster?’ Easy enough.
Give the Object of Desire an emblematic significance. ‘Emblematic’ is what happens when an Object of Desire means two or more things at once and the other meanings remind us, obscurely, of some human imperative like Sex (survival of the species), Immortality (survival of the self) or Morality (survival of the tribal values).
The result is instant meaning. Proof?
Moby Dick is packed with emblems. Maybe the whale, stuck with old harpoons, is the crucified Christ. Ahab is Mankind, figured as the ignorant soldier who speared Christ. The final destruction of the ship is the ruin of Mankind, deprived of Christ. Etc.
Of course, the logic becomes a trifle skewed – that vengeful whale definitely belongs in the Old Testament – but it’s clear that Moby Dick is packed with meaning. Even if it’s not at all clear what the meaning is.
But what about Emotion?
A story is a life world and life contains emotion, so we’d better have emotion in our story. Or, heaven forfend, the reader might not believe our story.
All emotion is generated by conflict – the start of conflict or the relief of conflict. (Think about it.) But we already have conflict in our basic plot: Boy Loses Hamster. What theme could be more emotional? Or more wracked with conflict?
Our characters just have to show their responses to that conflict. If they’re human, they’ll do it in this order.
First, they’ll feel it. ‘The blood drained from his cheeks.’That brings us to the next scene. Better make it a comfort break and give it a slow cadence so the reader can relax after the last dramatic episode
Then they’ll think it through. ‘My little Tommy, my hamster. He’s gone.’
Finally, they’ll take action. ‘I’ll kill that ruddy cat!’
The comfort break.
Drop in a reminiscence. ‘I loved Tommy and he loved me. Oh, lackaday!’Enough of that. We can now begin scene #2, which is merely a repeat of scene #1 (boy loses hamster) but using different words. ‘”Where’s Tommy?” Mama asked.’ And the poignant pattern starts again.
Or a summary. ‘He was in his cage this morning. And now he’s gone. Let me patiently review the sequence of those sad events.’
Or a bit of prose poetry. ‘The sun laughed overhead, indifferent to my woes. Pigeons cackled at my feet. My grief flowed from me in waves, lapping around the doleful room.'
We can analyze any great story that way.
Shakespeare? Take King Lear.
Boy meets hamster. (Lear reviews his kingdom, the Object of Desire, and decides he’s bored with it.)True, there’s a lot of distraction in the meantime. Sub-plots get in the way. But that’s the story of King Lear. Can anyone deny it?
Boy loses hamster. (Lear gives away his kingdom to his nasty daughters.)
Boy is reunited with hamster, or not. (Lear loses his kingdom but is then reunited with it. Metaphorically speaking, he gains the ultimate Object of Desire, self-insight, and so regains his soul. Or maybe not. Critics are undecided.)
No story is more complex or emotive. But it’s still (metaphorically speaking) 'boy meets hamster'. Why has no classic tale ever been written – literally - about a boy and his hamster? I’ve judged more than 4000 short stories in the Writers’ Village short fiction award but I have never yet encountered a hamster.
Are evil forces at work? Maybe it’s a conspiracy of agents, trade publishers and men in dark suits. They don’t want you to know the truth. What’s that? Boy meets hamster. It’s the secret path to fame, fortune and a Hollywood blockbuster.
Just send me a story with that theme, in the next contest round, and I’ll give you a £3000 ($4800) cash prize. I guarantee it.
Provided the story’s as well written as King Lear, of course.
BTW: If you felt that my analysis above of the Ultimate Plot might be a mite reductionist, it’s not. Truly. The distinguished author Kurt Vonnegut came to the same conclusion, after a lifetime of story plotting. See his hilarious video here.
What do you think? Is my theory too simple - or do we often make hard work of plotting? What's the simplest way you've found to devise a plot that works? Leave a comment and share your thoughts! .
In : Libels & Wickedness
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