Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Writing Basics: Plot

Summer’s almost here. (Seems like an odd thing to write, considering that I just survived the longest winter in the history of the human race since the last ice age. Basically, it was winter here in Wisconsin until just last week.) In preparation for summer, when so many of us will be starting new projects, I decided to start a series of posts that will be all about plot: plotting a novel, the parts of plot, subplots, Aristotle vs. Freytag, exposition, climax, resolution, etc…

So let’s start with the very basics.

First, what is plot?

Plot: the events or actions that take place in a story or novel.

According to Freytag (that’s Gustav Freytag the writer) a dramatic work (a novel) has five main parts: the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.


For this month’s post, let’s focus primarily on exposition.


This is the opening of the novel, where the main character is introduced in his/her ordinary world. Depending on the length, style, and structure of the novel, the exposition is usually the first 20% to 25% of the book, though this number can vary. As we approach the end of the exposition—let’s call this “page 25”—a conflict is introduced. This is sometimes called a “trigger” or a “plot point.”

For example: in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone) this is where we meet Harry Potter and the Dursleys. We get to know all about Harry’s life as an orphan, how he is mistreated by his aunt and uncle, how he has to wear Dudley’s hand-me-downs, and how he sleeps in the cupboard. And then, something happens to change Harry’s life, something that sends the ordinary world spinning in another direction. The trigger: Harry gets an owl, a letter that changes his life. This sets the plot in motion. 


Another example: in The Hunger Games, we open with Katniss and Gale hunting. We learn all about Katniss—how she and Gale are hunting partners, how there are fences surrounding their district, and that two tributes will be chosen. Everything is going fine (as fine as things can go in a Hunger Games universe) until the tributes are chosen. Prim is chosen as tribute, which “triggers” what happens next: Katniss volunteers as tribute. This sets the plot in motion. 

And finally: Breaking Bad. (Because it’s awesome. Also, pink teddy bear! Who doesn’t love pink teddy bears?) In Breaking Bad, during the exposition, we meet Walter and his family, we learn all about his job as a high school chemistry teacher, and his second job at a car wash, where he is mistreated by his boss. Everything is going fine (again, as fine as things can go in a Breaking Bad universe) until Walter’s life is changed forever. The trigger: Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer. This sets the plot in motion.


As you’re plotting your novel, think about the trigger. What will set the plot in motion? What could force your main character to make a life-changing decision? Think about your favorite books. Go back to them and pay special attention to how the author handles the exposition and the trigger, and how much of the setting is revealed/described during the first 25% of the book. Go back to your favorite TV shows and watch the pilots. How long before a conflict is introduced? How many characters are we introduced to during the exposition? When does the first plot point happen? 

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