There’s a lot of confusion about plot.
It’s a word that’s often used inter-changeably with other terms to describe aspects of storytelling, such as storyline or narrative. But the word plot is a technical term, and we should use it to describe something specific. And the easiest way to understand this technical use is to start off with some simple definitions.
Most people have a sense that ‘plot’ implies some sort of ‘plan’ – a writer deliberately arranging the events of a story for specific effects, perhaps even moving scenes around to maximise tension and surprise. That’s a very big part of what plot is all about, as we’ll see a little further on. But if that’s all there is, why don’t we just use the word ‘plan’? A plot is a plan, of course – in The Gunpowder Plot, for instance, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. But what made their plan a plot was the fact that they wanted to keep it secret.
There’s another sense in the word plot, too. We use it to describe a piece of land marked out for a specific purpose, usually constructing a building of some kind. So if we combine these two definitions we see plot as a secret plan which marks out a particular territory. And that’s what we mean when we use it to describe an aspect of storytelling. The plot of a story sets a framework within which the world of the story can be built. And a good plot – one in which everything comes together to deliver the effects the writer is after – should be hidden, a secret part of the story.
In contrast, a storyline is much more straightforward. It’s a term that comes from TV writing, and describes the actual events of a story in a sequence, rather like pearls on a string – this happens, that happens, and so on. It’s almost indistinguishable form the word narrative. You can weave a plot out of a storyline or a narrative, but they’re not the same.
Take The Lord of the Rings, for example. It contains many storylines – each character has a narrative, a sequence of events they either set in motion or suffer. Frodo becomes the ring bearer, heads off on his quest with his companions, becomes separated from most of them, continues with Samwise, reaches Mount Doom and manages to save the world.
But there’s a large element of plot involved. Somebody called Gollum is mentioned in an early chapter. He seems like a fairly minor character in what is a massive story (over 1000 pages!), a creature who once had the ring of power, lost it and is now obsessed with it, pursuing whoever is the ring bearer now. He appears at odd times, but gradually he becomes more important, and finally plays a vital role in the story’s resolution. Tolkien could have simply brought Gollum into the story towards the end, but by including him very early on – and dropping a few small clues here and there about his possible importance – he gives us both a shock of surprise and recognition at the same time. When you read the ending, you’re sur-prised by what happens, but then you realise how appropriate it is.
That’s how plotting works. You can tell a story in a straight line, with one thing happening after another and characters only appearing when they have a role to play. But it’s much better if you can tease the reader by slipping in some clues and hints, or characters who might not be what they seem, or by foreshadowing major events that will come later in the story. Again in Lord of the Rings, when we meet Strider we’re not sure if he’s a good guy or a villain, and that sets up tension, making us want to read on and find out more. In that sense withholding information from the reader is also part of weaving a plot. Strider turns out to be Aragorn, a great hero and king in waiting. But if we’d known that from the beginning the story would have lost an enormous part of its suspense and surprise. After all, isn’t that what we read stories and watch movies for?
Of course plotting a story can be quite difficult. Unless you’re the kind of writer who likes to plan their stories out in detail, you might not have any idea of how your story is going to end. So how can you put the right clues in at the beginning or in the middle? Some writers finish the story then go back and re-arrange the storylines to hide certain aspects, or insert clues early on once they’ve completed a draft and worked everything out. Even writers who plan their stories in detail often change things, and the truth is that great plotting is a dark art, only learned by trying to make plots work. But there are ways of making it easier.
Firstly, remember that plot grows out of character. If you have a good central character, with a real problem to face or conflict to overcome, and a specific goal to follow, then it should be fairly straightforward to devise actions that character will take. Those actions will lead to reactions from other characters, and so on. But all those actions and reactions should be consistent with the kind of characters they are. As soon as you lose sight of that, your characters will become puppets that you manipulate, and the story will feel unreal and contrived. It’s taking the easy way out – it’s much easier to think up what feel like dramatic scenes on their own than to create living characters. But it’s often the kiss of death for a story.
Secondly, it’s vital not to give too much away, especially at the beginning of the story. That might sound paradoxical – isn’t plot all about giving hints and clues? But that’s the point – you’re teasing readers, making them interested in your world and characters, hinting that there are thrills and spills and surprises to come. The temptation to start a story with huge chunks of exposition and character description is strong, but must be resisted at all costs. Remember, you can hint at something and then not mention it again for hundreds of pages, but if you do it properly you’ll have readers in the palm of your hand. And if you can let them work things out for themselves sometimes, they’ll love you even more.
And thirdly – study plot in all its forms. Try to be aware in your reading of what the writer is doing. Watch out for those early clues and hints, and try to follow them through the story. Do the same with the films you see and the TV programmes you watch. Stories told on screen are often very plot-driven – they have to be to hold an audience’s attention. One particularly good example of plot is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. What Macbeth hears from The Weird Sisters in the first act sets him off on a course that leads ultimately to tragedy. And at the end their words come back to haunt him. It’s a brilliant example of a number of storylines coming together and delivering a satisfying surprise. Reading crime fiction is also a good way to study plot – it’s all in the clues!
Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books for nearly 40 years. He has written for children of all ages, edited many anthologies of stories and poetry, and taught creative writing to both adults and children. He regularly visits schools and appears at the major literary festivals. He also reviews children’s and YA fiction for The Guardian. You can visit Tony's website or follow him on Twitter here.