Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Plot Thickens

Theresa Laws
HFC Member

Recently I heard a discussion among writers about what constitutes a story. According to some judges in a recent contest I entered, a “story” has a plot and if it doesn’t have plot, then it is just a “slice of life.” Okay. So, if I write a piece about what I did today, then I can’t call it a story. Plot is the all important thing.
So, what is plot?
Seventh grade English class was one of my favorite classes because it was easy. There was the required reading of novels that were way too long and stuffy poetry, all written by old men. Oh, I remember it fondly. I actually enjoyed reading “Treasure Island” and to this day I can still recite lines by Robert Frost.
Between discovering that Mary Kay, the most popular girl in class, had pimples on the back of her neck, and Randy, the budding teenage heartthrob, wore jeans that were too short, I learned something about literature and the art of creating it.
There was a lot of fluff that went on in that class, but my teacher uttered one sentence that I’ve remembered all these years. That one sentence has taught me so much about writing and helped me focus when I get lost. He said –
“Plot is getting your characters in trouble and getting them out again.”
There it is in a nutshell. Everything you need to know to tell a story.
But wait! What kind of trouble? What does the word “trouble” mean? Conflict! It takes conflict to make a real story. It there is no conflict (trouble) in your story, then you don’t have a story. You may have an interesting setting, and you may even have some engaging characters, but if they don’t have a conflict of some kind, inward or outward, then all you have is a slice of nice character’s lives in a really cool place.
Conflict is about need. When people need something, want something, and can’t get it then there is usually conflict. For example, take the age old conflict between parents and teenagers. The teen needs to have some freedom, they want to go somewhere, or dress a certain way, or they don’t do well in school. The parent needs to know their child is safe, that they are learning to make their way in the world, that they are well thought of. This is an instant recipe for conflict. It’s all about characters needing something.
A husband needs space and male companionship after a hard week. His wife needs some attention and a romantic dinner. Pow! Conflict. A story just waiting to be told. Any conflict between characters. or inside a single character, can create plot. When you write a story, be sure your characters want or need something and then put roadblocks in their way.
Now, the second part of that sentence I learned so long ago is “getting them out again.”
Resolution. Stories must have some kind of resolution in order to be satisfying for the reader. Your characters must make a change, either they change, or the situation does. Figuring out what that is, is your job as a writer.
So, when you sit down to write a story, think of conflict and need. Trouble and getting out of it. C’mon. I know you can. You were a teenager once, right?

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