It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

A plot, also called a storyline or narrative, is the sequential list of events which make up a story. These events are linked together within the framework of the story, and occur one after the other as the reader progresses through the story. They may not be revealed chronologically, and multiple events may be occurring simultaneously, but the reader — going through the story line by line — is generally only able to see one event at a time. Events may be “seen” in the sense that they are described as happening at that moment, on the page, or they may occur “off stage”. Offstage, unseen, events can be recounted by a character who was there/heard about the event, to a character who is listening to the event being described, or can be hinted at by revealing the ways in which the event affected others without describing the actual event.

While a story can have any number of events, for it to be interesting and complete, it must have three event points on its plot. Less than that, and the story is either incomplete (a vignette or character study) or it usually fails to be interesting. Often, a plot with fewer than three events is both incomplete and boring. Think of it like this:

Event A and/or/but Event B, so Event C.

That’s a complete plot. Without those three points, you’re not telling a story.

Now, before we get more into what is a plot point, we need to rule out all of the things that aren’t:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Place
  • Genre
  • Passage of time without implied/stated change of events

A character is a person, or anthopomorphic animal or object, which has stated qualities that set them apart from another similar person/animal/object. Examples:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman.
  • Karl is a 35-year old German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur.

By themselves, those descriptions do not contain events, even when they are giving the character qualities not possessed by all others. Age, color, race, geography — these are not events. They do not place the character within a story. There is no history, no arc, no context.

However, there are descriptions which contain events, and therefore reveal plot points:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman waiting outside the diner for her date to arrive.
  • Karl is a 35-year old unemployed German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas, living in California.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s, where she was abandoned.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur lying in the backyard.

Some of the events are more obvious than others, but each of those characters now is fixed to at least one event. Jenny is waiting, in a particular place, for a date that has not yet begun. In order for her to be there, she had to have made a plan, traveled to the diner, and she has not yet met up with her date. She has three events tied to her in that one sentence. Karl, by being described as unemployed, must have either once been employed but was separated from his job, or is expected to be employed but has failed to do so.

Lee has moved from Texas to California. Taffy used to belong to people, but now she doesn’t. Rex was placed in the backyard, either intentionally or unintentionally, by someone else, or moved there on his own (depending on the type of story). Though more about these events can be inferred because the age, place, and other descriptors imply greater depth to the events (Lee was either moved there by adults who made the decision for him, or ran away, since a 15 year old rarely has the legal right to move alone; if he does, that’s even more complex) they are still single events: one move, one loss of a former life, one moment where the character is no longer where it once was. Continue reading

Editing Tips #3: Who’s Telling the Story?

Before I can edit I story, I have to know a few things. I have to read it over to get a sense of the author’s voice (editing means making the story better, but that doesn’t include making it not yours anymore). I also need to know where the plot ends, so that I can shepherd the opening and middle bits along to their conclusion in a logical way*. But the most important part that I need to know, that I have to be absolutely clear on, is who’s telling this story.

That isn’t the same as identifying the main character, or even the narrator. Think of it this way: in order for you to be reading the story, someone from that world has be telling it to you. Ignore the author; unless it’s an autobiography, the author is just the vehicle. They’re the medium allowing the ghost of your dead husband to inhabit their body in order to tell you where he hid the family valuables. The storyteller is going to be the character that gets the story to the writer.** This is the character who lives all the way the through to end, sees everything that happened, or gathers the information from everyone else.

Sometimes they’re easy to find. A story that begins in the first person, and doesn’t end with the narrator’s death, is probably told by that narrator. A story which features more than one perspective can be harder to reconcile, so you need to read carefully to find the common thread. The person who was there in each scene, or the one who could have talked to everyone else, and gotten their stories.

Sure, not all tales have a single teller. They should, but it’s so much easier to go the “third person omniscient” route, and make your narrator God. Sees all, knows all, lazy fucking storytelling. Yeah, people do it. (But not you, right?)

Say I have a story where a single narrator is travelling through the jungle. It’s first person, narrator uses “I”. I know whose story it is, and it doesn’t change. Now what? Knowing that this is Bob’s tale means that I know where certain things should happen in the plot, because that’s how it would happen to him. When he’s talking about going through the jungle and discovering a camp, he’s describing the trip, the weather, the beat-up road… what comes next? It should be his view of the camp as they come up on it. If it’s anything else, a piece of the later story, and then the narrator goes back to describe the setting, it’s going to feel out of place.

When Helen walks into the room and sees a crime in progress, there are a million ways to describe that. The easiest, and worst, is to tell us things she couldn’t possibly know.

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor, obviously afraid that the masked man was about to kill her.

How exactly is that obvious? Helen can’t know what Mary is thinking, and there’s no description of the other woman’s face, body language, or anything else that would tell us. She could be afraid that the masked man will steal her jewels, rape her, torture her to get the location of the Maltese Falcon, or even be obsessing about the fact that her new carpet is getting dirty. But the author knows what Mary is afraid of, so let’s rewrite it to say that:

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor. As tears rolled down her face, a masked man stood a foot away, his gun pointed at her head. Helen wanted to cry out, but was afraid the man would kill them both.

We still have the same characters, we get a little more description (because we’re seeing what Helen is seeing), and we have the threat of death. You can even take out that last line and leave it ambiguous; the audience will certain pick up on the fear and tension here. Depending on the rest of the story, the death threat could have already been expressed, or left as implied. But this way, you’ve removed a place where someone might wonder, “How does she know?” You cut out a chance for the readers to lose their interest in the story. Instead, you keep them in the moment, in that room with Helen and Mary, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our readers look for that storyteller. We pick up a book and we expect it to be told to us. This goes back to our childhood experiences of being read to before we read ourselves, and further back to our cultural experiences of oral storytelling. We exist in a society that encourages active telling of tales (through music, tv, plays, movies and other performances). It’s even in the way we describe how we take in a show: we read a story, not “a story was read by us”. We consume entertainment; we create advertising to portray it as energetic, in your face (or your ears), actively trying to push an experience on you.

We bring that perspective to reading, and find the teller in the story. If you know that ahead of time, you can make sure you’re choosing who that narrator is, and how they transfer their tale to the reader. You can make sure that it flows smoothly, the voice is consistent, and there’s no place where the reader wonders, “How would they know that?” without finding out by the end. You can make clear the path from teller to reader, so nothing stands in the way of them enjoying your story.

Or you can hire an editor to help you with that.

* Logical doesn’t mean straightforward. It means that it has to fit whatever rules you’ve decided apply to your story. There’s always rules, a framework, the physics of the thing. We’ll talk about that another time.

** I don’t mean in a metaphysical way, whether you ascribe to pantheistic multi-ego solipsism (aka “World as Myth“) or not.