I wonder if one of the reasons I struggle with plot within a story is because I have a hard time seeing a clear plot in my own life. For the past few years I’ve been describing my personal journey as a winding path, one that sometimes turns back on itself to avoid boulders in the path, or in the form of switch-backs to help climb those steeper segments, one that passes through forests, into open fields, and then back into dense woods — sometimes with a clarity of direction, sometimes without.
Life doesn’t follow a typical plot line, it is far more complicated than that, so why should my stories confine themselves to a plot line?
Remember the plot-line? The basic outline that a story should follow, with the introductory information or starting point, a turning point or “inciting incident”, rising action, perhaps a few mini-climaxes, the ultimate climax of the story, falling action and resolution?
Yeah, that thing… I hate those things. Always hated them. It meant I had to put specific importance on certain things. I understand the structure, certainly, but often it seems arbitrary. When I try to dig apart some more complex stories, this plot line becomes less certain. Sometimes there is a clear-cut climax, a moment where everything comes together (sometimes in a battle, sometimes in an epiphany of some sort), but sometimes that moment is a quiet moment. And sometimes I have a hard time understanding just what point I’m supposed to consider the real turning point of the story.
I’m probably just being stubborn and difficult. I am willing to own that.
But when I look at trying to write a story I find that my plots go… a little differently. The problem may lie in my interpretation of the plot line. I see it as the base line being time moving forward, and then the rising action being tied to events, to things happening. This idea that as the story progresses the conflict and action increases, things build and build — and that building and tension is palpable in the story, until it hits a boiling point when something has to happen in order to mark a turning point in the story and allow resolution to occur. For example: Girl happily lives in her village (introductory information), when suddenly a monster attacks the village (turning point). Girl sets off on a mission to find the reason said monster attacked (rising action), she fights monster minions, meets allies, and faces a winter storm (mini-climaxes) before finding the wizard who told the monster to attack. She fights this wizard, with her new-found group of friends (climax) and they end the wizards evil reign. The group journeys back to the village (falling action), where they settle into their own, newly enriched lives (conclusion).
There’s nothing wrong with this structure but… I’ve been struggling to make some of the story’s that I’m working on fit it. For instance, Disparate Threads. This is the story of four different people that intertwine, intersect, and influence one another, their story’s connected even though they are quite separated. And I have mapped out the action of the story — moving them through time chronologically, trying to figure out the action. They are moving forward, and the story is moving forward, but in the middle of the forward action there are times of calm.
There are moments when the story is not necessarily moving forward, though the characters are progressing. And their moments of change are more gradual. Few (one.. I think that there is one) have a large, clear, moment of change from the building action. I suppose I could force their individual stories onto a more traditional plot-line, but I think it would be a challenge, and exactly what would I be plotting? The physical action of the story? The personal growth and development? How well they do, or do not, live up to the expectations being held for them? How they progress on their personal missions/quests/objectives (Which is what I plotted, more or less)?
Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in an essay entitled “Conflict”:
From looking at manuals used in college writing courses, and from listening to participants in a writing workshop, I gather that it is a generally recieved idea that a story is the relation of a conflict, that without conflict there is no plot, that narrative and conflict are inseparable. (Ursula K. LeGuin, “Conflict” (1987) in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989)
This essay started me thinking on the question of plotting, because I realized not that long ago that another story I have been working on, that I had been struggling with, seemed to lack in an external enemy. While Disparate Threads certainly has an enemy, it has clear conflict, this other story Fragments, does not. Not really, at least. It is a story about growth and change, about coming to terms with what is, and about discovery and reconciliation of self. It’s a story whose plot line would be even more challenging to map out for me, in terms of the pivotal points in the story (which do occur, but if you looked at descriptions of the scene with no understanding of the story they would be unlikely to look like the important and pivotal points).
Perhaps this is all why I have taken to mapping out my plots along chronological lines — making note of flashbacks and so forth, but setting the story along a timeline that simply is informed by the passage of time, not putting any events in places of more importance, not labeling a scene as the turning point.
And I find myself wondering, who uses plot lines? Outside of creative writing classes, is this a model that rings true to other writers? Am I just off mark or understanding them wrong? Do you have a plot-structure format that you use? What works for you?