Chapter 8: Plot vs. Story

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Viewing Assignment:

Big Hero 6

Let's talk about money.

No, we're not going to talk about how to make money from your writing (that's a big discussion for a different book.).

What we're going to talk about is actual, physical money. Chances are, you probably don't have any coins in your pocket right now. Across the world, we've switched more and more to virtual money, but (until everything goes digital) I bet you've held a coin in your hand.

Coins are remarkably universal. Whether it's a Bhat, a Quarter, a Euro or a Peso, it's got two sides. There is usually someone's face on one side and something else on the back. When you think about it, it's pretty much impossible to imagine a coin without two sides. You may picture one side most of the time, but you always know the other side is there.

And that's how we need to look at what we write...that all of our stories and novels have two sides.

In the last few chapters we've been really focused on one side of the writing coin. We've talked about what is going on inside the characters. As I've said before, this change that the character goes through is the Story (big S). But, I've also given you some hints about the other side of the coin...the plot.

We've talked a bit about how Story interacts with the plot (no need to capitalize this one as it almost always means the same thing), but now it's time to give you some details on how you can bring both sides of the coin together by making the plot and Story work together.

When most of us get an idea for a new story, we tend to get ideas for things that might happen. True, the first images we conjure up might be of a character, but it's generally a character doing something that the reader can see or hear. Our first impressions of a character or story tend not to be about how that character is changing, becoming something new.

That's why we've spent so much time talking about all the internal stuff. It takes time to consider all the aspects of theme and character arc and the internal whys that make up the Story of a story. But plot's relatively straightforward. Something happens that leads to the next thing. Characters do things and the plot builds until it's over.

Yes, there are lots of tools you can use to shape a great plot, and we will get into those in upcoming chapters, but we get rough ideas for plot pretty naturally.

So, to get started, let's go back to our money analogy. Go find a coin. Set its edge on the table and give it a good spin. While it spins, look at it.

You don't see one side or the other anymore, do you? When it's spinning fast, it all blurs together.

That's what reading a good story is like for your readers. When you put everything together well, the two different sides of character development and plot blur into one experience for the readers. They can't see the mechanics of how things fit together because you've made the two sides flow together so well.

But how? At the fundamental level it's pretty simple...the decisions or choices the character makes drive things that happen to form the plot. And the new situations in the plot give opportunities for new decisions and actions for the character to make.

And, by the end of the story, the plot has hopefully provided a situation where the character has to make a decision that she would not have made earlier in the story.

What really ties this together is a sense of causality in a story, a feeling that actions lead directly to certain outcomes, without the randomness of life. Do you remember our time spent with Curious George the monkey? As an adult we don't enjoy Curious George quite as much because there are few causal connections in the actions. George does one thing, then a different thing and finally the Man with the Yellow Hat shows up to rescue him. Not only is the Man with the Yellow Hat a predictable deus ex machina, but George's actions don't lead directly to anything. They don't build or put him in situations where he has to grow or change.

This is totally fine for a young children's book, but if we are writing for even slightly older readers, we have to satisfy that need for causality. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Our brains are amazingly good at spotting patterns, and seeing a pattern of cause and effect makes our brains happy. Also, we often lack a sense of causality in real life. Too often we are in Curious George's position, where life throws us from one situation to another and there is little we can do to influence what happens. So, getting to read about a character who gets to see the direct impact of her actions feels good.

Now, let's take a moment to look at some examples of how character decisions cause new plot events, which cause the need for even more decisions.

In the film Big Hero 6, the protagonist Hiro definitely drives the action. He is always pushing, always investigating, always seeking revenge or justice for the death of his older brother.

Here's just a bit of the interplay between his decisions and the plot taken from the first act of the film.

In the beginning, we meet Hiro as he is hustling an illegal bot fight and has to be rescued by his brother Tadashi. And, instead of listening to his brother's warnings, Hiro decides to go to yet another bot fight.

This decision triggers a reaction by his brother, who says he will take him to the fight, but they have to make a stop first. Tadashi takes Hiro to his nerd school and Hiro decides that he has to get in there. This sparks his decision to sign up for the big robotics competition so he can win a place at the school.

The next bit of the plot follows because of this decision. Hiro builds his microbots and wins the competition. Plus...what we don't see directly is that it is Hiro's decision to make microbots that drives the decision of the villain to blow up the convention hall so that he can steal the microbots. It isn't shoved in our face, but it's Hiro's actions that lead to the death of his brother. This isn't saying Tadashi's death is Hiro's fault, far from it. It's just that the death is causally connected to earlier events and is not random.

This takes us into the rest of the film. Hiro keeps making decisions that keep changing the situation throughout the rest of the movie. And this is something that you can do too. When you are thinking of the events that will happen in your story (plot), just take time to think about what your main character might do that would create these events. You can start from the beginning or even from the ending and work backwards. We will go into a lot of detail on the backward pass soon, I promise.

No matter which end you start at, if you work to link up internal decisions with external moments of the plot, you will have yet another critical technique that will help you create stories that readers will not be able to put down.

Instructor's note:

This lesson marks the end of the theory section of our writing manual. If we take the money analogy a bit further, we've been talking about the theory of money so far. But from now on, we are going to be talking about cash that you can hold in your hand. From this point, we launch into specific techniques to help you plan and write great stories.

So, hold onto your hats and get ready!

Chapter 8 Homework:

Describe the cause and effect relationship of character decisions and plot action for one of your favorite films or books.

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