Plot and Structure – Bricks and Mortar
To go back to my initial ‘building’ analogy, let’s take a closer look at how plot and structure can intertwine. As shown in the example of ‘Gone Girl’ certain types of plots can be showcased more effectively according to the way they are structured. With the earlier example of the thriller set over a period of seven days, the tight structure gives the sense of impending catastrophe and racing against time that makes a thriller, well, thrilling.
We’ve looked at the ‘seven plots’ (or three or six, or eight, depending on who you listen to) and the eight point arc that provides a map of how each may unfold, but another plot consideration that affects the choice of structure and vice versa is the element of story that dominates the narrative. For example, people often talk about a plot being either ‘character’ based or ‘action’ based. These are the most typical distinctions, but there are also two other elements may that determine the shape of your story; a ‘world’ based plot and an ‘idea’ based plot. I’d like to take a look at each of these in turn and how the over-riding theme of your plot ties in with the chosen structure of your narrative. We’ll begin with the two most common, typical of commercial novels; character and action.
Character – All stories have characters, of course, and even in a more action based tale we need well drawn main characters that we can relate to and empathise with – even root for in their darkest moments. With a character based plot however this is taken one step further and the over-riding theme of the story is not so much what the character does but how they are transformed by it. Whatever actually happens in the tale is secondary to the inner journey that the character/s go through. This type of plot may be expected to be found in family sagas or romances but in fact is just as common in more action packed novels – the horrors of Stephen King are sometimes heavily character based; Misery, for example.
The paranormal crime Anita Blake series written by Laurell K Hamilton is also heavily character based. Each book is tightly plotted and packed with murders, werewolf wars, preternatural love triangles and the like, yet the overarching theme of the whole series and each individual book is the profound transformations – not always positive – Anita experiences as a result. The tortured inner wrestling with her emotions and eventual triumph over her inner demons makes Hamilton’s bestselling series stand apart in a market saturated with paranormal stories.
Structuring of a character based story is in effect quite simple; it begins at the point when things begin to change for the character, and ends when the inner journey is complete. They are often although not always told in the first person. There can be variety within this; if the plot focuses on two main characters then they may take alternate chapters or a half of the story each; flashbacks and flash forwards may be used; perhaps the story, a la Bridget Jones, is told in diary form; but nevertheless that character arc remains the over-riding structure.
Action – In an action based plot the characters don’t actually take a back seat as such (otherwise the reader is likely to discard the story out of sheer disinterest in what happens to any of them) but nevertheless it is the events that take centre stage. Or more accurately, one particular event starts off the action, and the story only ends when the consequences of this are resolved.
Andy McNab’s war and espionage novels are good examples of this, but an action based plot doesn’t necessarily mean a thriller; J K Rowlings A Casual Vacancy is small-town story with a myriad of richly drawn characters, that is undoubtedly action/event based. The story begins when a local councillor dies and leaves his seat open. Cue a spiralling sequence of events that drag all of the characters in, only reaching a climax when the seat is filled.
Action based plots are often tightly structured within a short, linear time frame to give the feeling of events spiralling. A myriad of viewpoints often works, but so can just one or two. To use the above examples; Andy McNab often writes in one first person viewpoint (he famously started off his writing career with his own memoirs) whereas J K Rowling uses the third person viewpoint for nearly every character in the book (and there are many). Both work.
World – Also referred to as ‘mileu’ this is often the dominant story element in many fantasy and science fiction novels, where the setting takes centre stage. Characters may be deep and events rich, but they only take place and interact within the context of the world. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal authors refer to this as ‘world-building’ and will often have detailed overviews of everything about the fantasy world, from geography to social customs, before putting a story plot together.
Excellent examples of world-building obviously include J R R Tolkiens Middle-Earth and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The Discworld series of books are excellent examples of the world dominating the plot. Colourful characters abound and Pratchett’s stories are full of action, yet the Discworld itself is so richly drawn it becomes the main character and main event all rolled into one. The effect is made sharper by Pratchett’s witty and often caustic comparisons between the Discworld and the world we know.
Many different structural techniques can be found in these types of stories, and often even quite a loose structure may be used (the world itself providing the parameters of the story). Pratchett’s Discworld novels are typically one long piece of writing with no chapters, split into myriad third person viewpoints and sections of omnipresent third person narration (not associated with a particular character; It was a Monday, for example) that gives an overview of Pratchett’s universe. They are usually linear though; whereas other world based plots often make good use of time-slips and non-linear narratives.
World based stories that are more tightly structured tend to be those where the ‘world’ in question is alien to the central character. The story begins with the events that lead the character to enter the world, and ends when they return home. The Wizard of OZ is a classic example.
Historical novels are also occasionally dominantly world based; in my personal opinion however historical novels work best when the pre-modern setting is used as a backdrop to the main story, adding context to the events and the character’s journeys.
Idea – The idea based story is also referred to as a theme based plot or a plot that hangs on a question; generally a ‘what if?’ The story ends when the question is answered or the idea or theme fully explored in the context of the story. Alternative histories are good examples of question based plots. What if Hitler had won? What if the Spanish Armada had invaded England? And so on.
Most of Jodi Picoult’s bestsellers, although they read like typical character or action based plots, are in fact based on a question (to hammer this home, her publishers have now started putting these questions explicitly on the covers, effectively drawing readers in). This question is kept in the mind of the reader throughout the book, often leading the reader to ask themselves ‘what would I do in this situation?’ and immediately empathise with the main character. Another author who employs this to great effect is Diane Chamberlain. Exploring issues such as organ donation, teen suicides and even mercy killings, issue based novels of this nature tend to be popular with book clubs.
John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, although structured as an action packed legal thriller like the majority of his novels, could also be seen as an idea based plot, asking as it does some very heavy questions about racial and social justice.
How the idea is explored or how the theme unfolds will then determine the structure. Question based novels will often be linear and pacy, though some of Chamberlain’s novels prove an exception to this, interweaving different narratives and time slips.