I’ve been thinking a lot about the classic plot skeleton lately, for a variety of reasons, and I’ve been getting steadily more annoyed with most of what’s written about it, and about plotting in general.
The trouble is that most of what’s written about plot and plotting is stuff that’s written after the fact – it’s based on critical analysis of books that have already been written. Even the how-to-write books seem to have simply adopted the post-writing analytical outlook, lock, stock, and barrel. You can find some really excellent descriptions of plot structures (Linda Seger’s How to Make a Good Script Great has a terrific description of the three- and five-act structures common in plays, movies, and TV, for instance), but they’re all starting from pretty much the same place – the basic plot skeleton.
What this leaves out is all the other possible structures. To extend the metaphor a bit, not all stories are mammal, with endoskeletons. Some of them are insects that have exoskeletons, or mollusks that have shells, or even octopus- or amoeba-like things that have nothing resembling a skeleton at all.
And none of this is much of any help to a great many writers who are in the process of constructing a story. There are some writers who start with a plot and plan most of the story from there before they start writing, and a lot of others who, regardless of what other bit they started with (characters, setting, theme, idea…) have developed at least a basic sketch of a plot before they start writing.
But I don’t know anyone who sits down and thinks about plot as a plot-skeleton or a three-act, four-act, or five-act structure while they are making it up. The few writers I know who get that analytical about their own work do so only when they know something has gone wrong in the writing, and they’re trying to figure out what.
The thing that does seem to be useful to writers during the actual writing or pre-writing stages is questions. What are the characters trying to do, or achieve? Could it change in the course of the story? What happened five, ten, twenty years ago that set up these characters for whatever is happening now? What does the protagonist want? Why can’t he/she have it? What are they willing to do to get it? Are there societal barriers in the way of the protagonist getting what he/she wants? Or is it something they have internal doubts about for some reason?
Note that none of these questions talking about “what happens next.” “What happens next?” is possibly the most useless question writers can ask themselves; it’s practically guaranteed to create frustration in most folks (though I’ve known one or two who seem to be wired backwards; if you find that asking “what happens next?” provides you with just what you need to go on with, while asking anything more specific brings you to a screeching halt, you are probably another one, and can ignore most of the rest of this post, except as something of academic interest).
The most useful question, for the rest of us, tends to be “Why…?” Why would the protagonist turn left at that corner instead of right? Why would James Q. Villain bother trying to stop the hero? Why did the vampires pick this year to start a labor union, instead of last year or next year? Why was the Super-Duper Gizmo lost in the first place, and why did the hero “just happen” to find it?
These “why” questions lead fairly directly to a cause-and-effect relationship between whatever is going on – this happens, then that happens because of the first thing, which makes something else happen, and so on. For a linear story – one that moves the protagonist chronologically from today through tomorrow to next week and next month until it gets to the climax – this works really well, and quite often gets one to a typical plot-skeleton with very little extra adjusting.
But for those stories that aren’t linear – for ones that move back and forth in time, or that have deliberately circular or spiral structures, or that do other unusual things – the relevant questions may be a bit different. What holds the story together may still be the ups and downs and cause and effect of the events in the protagonist’s life, in which case asking “why” with a focus on the characters or the immediate situation still works pretty well.
If the story has an exoskeleton, though, the right question is more often “What is possible, given the set shape of this story?” or “What needs to happen next to maintain the shape?” In other words, the focus isn’t so much on the characters or the situation as it is on the constraints that the author has decided to place on the story (whether the constraints happen deliberately or inadvertently is a whole ‘nother question). Sometimes, the most useful place to start is “What are the constraints on this story, and why in heaven’s name did I think it was going to be a good idea to do it this way?”
The thing to remember is that all this stuff is voluntary. The author gets to decide whether to start out with a skeleton, or a mollusk shell, or a blob of jelly; whether to do a lot of pre-planning or whether to sit down and just wing it. The writer gets to make up the rules…and if she doesn’t like them, she can make up a different set for the next story.