Friday, 1 August 2014

Story Elements: Plot layering

In my experience, few of the people who're passionate about writing have real difficulty writing good prose. We may agonise over the words, reaching for ever more precision, clarity, originality, but really, we can whip a sentence into shape. More often, when someone is stuck with a story, it's the story structure that's giving trouble. The words are fine: they just need somewhere to go. (And once they've got somewhere to go, they tend to flow, and create new surprising moments along the way.) This was my logic behind creating the Story Elements course to help with all the elements of story architecture, everything besides the prose. The course games and activities, not bursts of theory, so people can try something out, use process-learning, explore new ideas and principles instead of getting a rule lobbed at them, and practice on play-stories, rather than using one work-in-progress as a perpetual guinea-pig for every new approach. In the sessions on Plot Layering, we work on creating the stories' events and layers, and some of the techniques and misconceptions around that.

Supposedly, we read stories "to find out what happens" - but in most stories, especially genre stories we actually know the ending.  Anne Boleyn gets her head cut off. The romance ends with the couple together. The good side wins in fantasy. Yes, people play within and against a genre - "grey" characters in fantasy don't split into good-vs-evil - but more often, the genre rules hold. What if Mrs Coulter had "won" in His Dark Materials, Lyra's quest failed and Lyra dead? Or if Katniss was killed in The Hunger Games? The reader and author have a secret contract: the reader pretends not to know the ending, in return for the ending they were promised; the author will deliver the promised ending, and "hide" it from them for most of the book. The secret to that is plot-layering: the plot is rich enough to distract the reader from the ending. (That's where many genre romances fail, incidentally: the plot's too thin to hold the happy ending at bay and there's only so long that two rational human beings can sustain a misunderstanding.)

Often, in layering the plot, writers pull back from "big events" - they're "too melodramatic", "too unrealistic" - but in real life, people do die. (Everyone dies. Eventually. As George RR Martin is so intent on reminding us.) Friends do turn against each other. Shocking revelations do come to light, whether through the old trope of the box in the attic or the newer style of seeing inside someone's computer, or phone. The "unrealistic" / "melodramatic" defence is often a cover for being nervous of the big stuff. The plot-layering Snakes & Ladders game leads you through throwing the really big stuff into your plot - the good as well as the bad. The story needs its chiaroscuro, its shades of light and dark.

That said, one can easily go too far: "A really BIG problem is one that affects THE WHOLE WORLD! There's a nuclear bomb in Rome!" Fine if you're writing action thrillers, perhaps, but you don't always need to make the problem bigger: sometimes you just need to zoom in closer and make it matter more. What's more, throughout this quest for obstacles and plot-layers, we often forget the ordinary stuff. We give our characters one giant problem to solve (Ebola outbreak! Raiders on the coast! The man you love is dying!) and make everything else in their lives trouble-free. Their fairy godmother takes care of everything else, from their clothes to their home to the reliability and health of everyone around them. Restoring normal, practical domestic / relational / financial / etc problems does two powerful things. First, it's a great source of material. It's not a distraction from your plot: make it part of your plot. Second, it's verisimilitude in a bottle: it grounds the story to make it convincing, realistic; it adds that grainy texture of real life that makes us believe even more strongly in the character and hence care even more about their story. Ultimately, what matters in the story is what matters to the character. And the more we know the character, the more we care about what matters to them.

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