You’ve read or heard it all before: story arcs, plot point one and two, second reversal, etc etc. You find that instead of inspiring you to write all this jargon just leaves you a tad confused. And don't feel bad- almost all of the world's great stories from Robinson Crusoe to Madame Bovary were written without any knowledge of plot points and arcs. Yep, from the point of view of the author, the writer, the creator, all that JARGON is less use than what you can accurately observe in your own street with your own eyes. It’s actually a useful shorthand only for people in the film business who want to criticise scripts and can't think of anything else to say. And it kind of works- if you want to criticize something that already exists, it’s just totally useless for generating material in the first place.
You need, as the author, to have a way of thinking about plot that makes sense to you, that you understand, and more importantly can use to generate stories. So here are a few basics.
1. Start at the end. You start reading at the beginning, but it’s a lonely hard place to start writing. Instead follow the lead of Edgar Allan Poe and start with the effect you want to have on the reader. Think about the final image, the feeling you want to leave people with, some situation that brings everything all together. Then think about the high point in the story. Think of a story as having high points- which is when your reader is impressed, immersed, amused and hopefully worried about the fate of the characters and then flat bits, where you expend the credit you earned for the high point setting up another, hopefully different high point. And though you may start the physical writing at the beginning you should, at least in your head, have at least one workable end worked out.
2. Identify your non-submersible units. Stanley Kubrick used to talk about making a film as getting together 9 or 10 non-submersible units and linking them. There is deep story knowledge in this comment and it pays to ponder it. You want lumps of story stuff that you think a) is necessary and b)almost stands on its own (non-submersible) ie. it’s good stuff, and c)you are unwilling to let go of- ie. non-negotiable, stuff you like or have decided (“it’s about bee keeping- and that’s that, even if bee keeping is boring”- that kind of defiance is needed here)
3. Look for event-rich people and situations. Wars, hospitals, criminals, policemen, the sea, the past- all event rich. If that doesn’t appeal twist the dial and find what sitcom people call ‘a franchise’, in other words a mini-world- this could be a library, a taxi company, a hotel or a village. A microcosm. A library seems event-poor at first sight- but when it becomes ‘the world’ this acts to magnify anything that happens. A sneeze in a library is an event- in the undifferentiated world (the mishmash of urban plus media generated world we mostly inhabit) it is nothing.
4. Exaggerate characters. One of the first things you learn in story telling: things are either underplayed or overplayed. There is NO exact copy of reality. You’re either dimming the lights on a subject or turning up the spots. And most effects in writing rely on the contrast effect of moving from underselling one bit of story and slapping it next to a nice bit of exaggeration. Characters are no different. You can tone down over-the-top just as you can paint over bright yellow with a darker colour. Much harder to do the reverse.
5. Put contradiction into characters. If something is settled it is finished with. The reason we have stories is to talk about situations and people which aren’t settled. The more that isn’t settled the more interesting the story- so a character with a contradiction has more miles in him or her than someone with a congruent personality.
6. Link your favourite story formats. Escape from prison, building a team, the underdog wins: these are some familiar story formats. ‘How to plot’ books are full of them. Unfortunately they only work if you like them personally yourself, if they call to something inside YOU. If you find you love one type of story format then use it.
7. Remember: things are always getting worse and things are not what they seem. Jim Thompson, whose work is well regarded, though I think pretty bleak, famously said, “I’ve written hundreds of stories but only one plot: things aren’t what they seem.” How do you work that? Keep your cards close to your chest, use a start that belies the ending you have in mind, don’t telegraph your moves. As for things getting worse it sometimes helps to think of a story as a problem the character must solve- but has very little chance of doing so. Keep reducing that chance as you go along. Give your character hell, especially if they are appealing and you like them. Read the marvelous children’s story by Eric Kastner, Emil and the Detectives for a great example of this.
8. Find something you wholeheartedly admire and copy it. This is the sound and true and solid advice of one of the great masters of storytelling - Robert Louis Stevenson- find a work you love and copy its moves. Its moves, not its content. Things you love you have kind of impregnated on your inner brain and they come out right. Don’t worry about being accused of copying since AS YOU KNOW YOU ARE COPYING you will make strenuous efforts to disguise your work and differentiate it from its model. For example, you might love the Secret Sharer by Conrad (a story about a relationship between a stowaway and a first time ship captain) so you copy its moves and write a story about an infantry officer retreating from Stalingrad with a partisan in tow. No one will ever guess.