Years ago, when I was just starting to learn my craft, I attended a panel at which someone asked a question about plotting, plots, and how to come up with a good plot. One of the panelists immediately replied that the best way to learn to plot was to study fairy tales, because they were “practically pure plot,” with all the extraneous stuff stripped away by a generations-long game of “telephone.”
The other panelists chimed in in agreement, and it all sounded very convincing, especially when I thought about the fairy tales I’d read (and I have read a lot of them). So I bought into the advice. I didn’t actually go and study fairy tales, because I was not, at the time, having any particular trouble with plotting, but I passed it on occasionally when someone asked me for advice on the subject.
Some years later, I was invited to write a novel for the Fairy Tales line – novel-length retellings and re-imaginings of traditional fairy tales. I accepted with glee, chose my favorite childhood fairytale, and went off to read it, happy with the thought that I wouldn’t have to do much in the way of plotting this time, because it was all already there in the story.
Then I read the fairy tale.
It was not “practically pure plot;” in fact, it had very little of anything resembling what I think of as plot. It was not only episodic, but disconnected; things happened that not only didn’t contribute to the main storyline, but also didn’t appear to have any point at all. Sort of like when your cousin is telling you about the fight in the bar last week and spends five minutes talking about whether he drove the pickup or the SUV that night.
I still didn’t get it. It wasn’t until years – decades – later that it began to sink in. Fairy tales are not “pure plot.” They are, most of them, “pure story,” which is not at all the same thing. The ones that are closest to being “pure plot” are the literary fairy tales, not the ones taken down directly from the oral tradition.
Plots are organized and connected. Things may appear to occur at random, but if a mysterious stranger shows up in Chapter Two to help the woodcutter’s daughter find her way out of the woods, the reader can reasonably expect that by the end of the tale, that mysterious stranger will have reappeared…or at least, that someone will have explained who he was and why he showed up to help.
In a fairy tale, you can’t count on explanations. Things happen because they happen; the three princes reach the crossroads one at a time, and all three hear the thrush singing, but only the youngest listens to the bird’s advice and takes the overgrown path into the forest instead of the paved road to the pub. The story moves on, and you never do find out why the bird is singing advice at a crossroads all day, or how it is that the princes can all understand it (or could if they bothered to listen).
Turning a fairy tale – or any story – from a story into a plot involves, first off, making all the connections and coming up with all the explanations that the fairy tale left out. Maybe everyone in the fairytale world can understand animal speech, or maybe each of the princes was given an amulet that allows them to do so, or maybe only the youngest was given that gift by his fairy godmother. Maybe the thrush is part of the test for the three princes, or perhaps it is a fairy or enchanter with his/her own agenda, or an enchanted princess desperately trying to get someone to break the enchantment.
Not all the possibilities are compatible. Different combinations of explanations will drive the rest of the story in slightly (or greatly) different directions, opening up new possibilities and closing others. If only the youngest prince can understand the thrush, then either the thrush is not part of a test, or the youngest prince has a possibly-unfair advantage. On the other hand, if the youngest prince was given the animal-speech gift by his fairy godmother, then perhaps the thrush is the fairy godmother, directing him (and only him) for some reason of her own.
The next part of the process is one of taking all the connections one has filled in and checking to make sure they all work together. For me, this usually involves answering questions of who and what and why – who’s behind this, what is really going on (as compared to what the characters think is going on), and most of all, why is this happening here, now, to these people? Did someone plan it, or is it coincidence, or fate, or the effect of two or more plans colliding?
Lots of writers struggle with plot, and in at least some cases it’s because they start with story, like fairy tales, and either don’t realize they need to move to plot, or have no idea how to do so. Or, as in my case, they’re coming at it from the wrong angle entirely. Which I’ll talk about next time.