What is the difference between a plot and a straightforward story? When I was studying at university, we defined a story as the ‘what happened’, the events – plain and simple – as they happened in the order of which they happened. It was a history, with no embroidery. Whereas a plot was how the writer shuffled the events to make sense of them, and gave someone a viewpoint and opinion of how the events affected them. It wasn’t straightforward, and could be quite complicated, while adding emphasis to certain events. Sometimes a plot can be too complicated (I’m looking at you, George R R Martin). Generally, to write a novel or a narrative, you need characters, settings, and a plot.
Unexperienced writers of start off with cookie cutter plots. And what is a cookie cutter plot, you may ask? These are narratives that share exactly the same as other narratives in the same genre, so that the names and places are interchangeable. Everyone knows these plots, for example:
- girl meets boy
- they get off on the wrong foot, usually some silly misunderstanding
- girl experiences an unexpected challenge
- boy helps her overcome challenge, often against his better judgement, and her resenting his assistance
- girl and boy grow to like each other as they find they have more and more in common
- girl and boy fall in love
Sometimes this plot will end here with ‘and they lived happily ever after’, and sometimes it is embedded within a larger plot. This is the central plot of most fairy tales, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and even the movie, You’ve Got Mail. There is nothing wrong with a cookie cutter plot – though I believe Hollywood loves them maybe a fraction too much. They work. But it is up to the writer to bring something new and fresh to the plot, maybe in the way of an unexpected plot twist, maybe with wonderfully constructed characters that live and breathe, maybe with a truly exotic setting.
The best thing about a cookie cutter plot is that they are generally uncomplicated, which means a writer can really concentrate on their prose. Knowing the plot gives some writers confidence; some writers find it restrictive. Not every writer sets off on the journey with a map, and they often find unexpected treasure … and sometime they get lost in a jungle.
What do you do if you have lost control of your plot? Is your story lost in all the flourishes and subplots? Is it almost impossible to resolve all the challenges set in front of your characters?
First of all, ask yourself “What is the important story here?” “Who is my main protagonist?” “What is unimportant to the story?”
This is a KILL YOUR DARLINGS situation. Take a deep breath, take hold of a metaphorical highlighter and red pen, and prepare to slash and burn. Break down you narrative, and highlight what is vitally important to telling the story. Don’t be twee about this. Be brave. No matter how much you love a subplot or a scene, if it isn’t important, it has to go. Worse-comes-to-worse, you can always put them back in. Or, if the cut bits are just that good, you can always use them as the kernel of a new novel, so it is worthwhile keep them in a separate folder – don’t toss them.
Now reread your narrative. Does it make more sense? No? Then it is possible you need to add more structure to your plot. Don’t be concerned by the use of the word structure. This will NOT restrict your creativity. You are in charge of the structure; the structure is not in charge of you. You are just giving your castle in the air a web to hang upon … think of your structure as light and airy like a rainbow and not like the black, iron bars of a cage. Some people like to ‘draw’ their plot structures, other people like grids, and other people prefer spread sheets. You should experiment with different ways of expressing a structure to see what works best for you.
A Steampunk plot can be as complex as clockwork, but remember, clockwork only functions when every piece fits neatly together and is doing its job.