I’ve said before herein that teaching a high school-level creative writing class is quite beneficial to me. Not only does it keep me motivated to become a better writer (and hence a better teacher), but it keeps me in constant contact with the fundamentals of writing because about 95% of my students are only ready for the fundamentals. So it really grates on me when more advanced writers ignore the fundamentals or in some way indicate that they are disregarding them–and it’s twice as bad when they are allowed to get away with that. I had cause recently to revisit this anger, and soon thereafter got to thinking about fundamentals in regard to plot.
First, though: Plot ain’t easy. It takes a lot to weave a sophisticated plot that is a perfect fit for any particular story. Some of it may be god-given talent, but a lot of it is plain heavy lifting. Heck, even a basic, straight-forward plot can be ripe with trouble as you try to get things to make sense. But this is exactly why there are fundamentals–so you can master them and move on to creating advanced plots.
Here are some pointers:
1. The Turd in the Punch Bowl
Imagine you’re at a party having a nice time and you make it over to the refreshments table. You get some chips and dip, a few carrots, a piece of cake. When you go to ladle some punch into your cup, though, you notice a turd floating around in the fruity concoction and bumping into the partially submerged ice ring. But nobody reacts to it. It’s just there like it’s normal and expected. Would something like this really happen? Hell no. It follows, then, that characters in your story should be reacting to unusual circumstances in their environment. Otherwise, what purpose are those unusual circumstances serving?
So, for instance, if your character Jasmine is popping pills and guzzling vodka at every turn, and she spaces out in public and is having vivid flashbacks and is mumbling to herself or physically acting out, shouldn’t somebody say something? Shouldn’t her friends / family mention it? Wouldn’t strangers call the police if this happened in public? Of course they would. To ignore it or act otherwise wouldn’t make sense. That’s not how the world as we know it works, so why would we believe it works that way in a story that isn’t asking us to step out of the world as we know it?
2. No “All of a sudden…”
This is a huge rule because it covers so much. Whether a writer uses the actual phrase, “All of a sudden…” or it’s knock-offs “out of nowhere…” and “unexpectedly…”, or even if events unfold as if things are happening all of a sudden, it’s a cheap trick that many times exposes a faulty or ill-conceived plot.
For example, if Jasmine’s sister Ginger goes to a party with Jasmine and ends up dancing with Al and then sleeps with him shortly after, thus cheating on her boyfriend Chili, it would help immensely if we knew that Ginger was unhappy in her relationship in the first place, or that she’s impulsive, or that she has a history of infidelity. Any of those is better than BAM! All of a sudden she’s walking on a beach with Al and they’re talking about how they just had sex. That destroys her character!
And while we’re at it: Don’t pull another “All of a sudden…” when Chili finds out Ginger’s been cheating. Please don’t have Chili confront Ginger and tell her he has a bartender friend who who saw Ginger with Al at the party she went to with Jasmine. That’s cheap George Lucas crap. How hard is it to have a scene in which the bartender sees or recognizes Ginger? That’s enough to tip off the audience that trouble’s a-brewin’. Otherwise, it’s a cheap trick of convenience and tips the audience off that you’re being lazy. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Don’t be lazy. The important events should be portrayed in dynamic scenes, not referenced as empowering events.
So after a blowout argument, the next time we see Ginger and Chili, they have reconciled. They’re all lovey and kissy and happy like the infidelity and turmoil were so insignificant to them that it took almost no emotional effort to overcome them. If it wasn’t a big deal to them, why should it be a big deal to the audience? Better yet–why is it even in the story if it ain’t no thang? Instead, how about we see Ginger racked with pain over what she did and then making the decision to bite down hard, return to Chili, and then try to salvage the relationship. Wouldn’t that be a lot more interesting than them pretty much saying, “Uh, yeah. We made up…”? Again, it’s a cheap trick to skip the big stuff and jump to the happy ending.
And speaking of cheap tricks…
4. Dialogue is action.
Pay attention to that word: Dialogue. It’s a two-way interaction between characters. In fact, it’s been said that dialogue is the only true action in a story. Thus, dialogue is pretty damn important. Maybe, then, Ginger should be having a dialogue with Al when she finds out he’s actually married. When she discovers this devastating news, she probably doesn’t need to be having a one-sided phone conversation in which the audience is inferring what is being said by the party on the other end of the line because that’s a cheap trick that undermines the drama inherent in the scene.
But maybe you’re a big Bob Newhart fan and you’re one-sided phone conversation is an homage to him? Suck it–that doesn’t work for this kind of scene. Save it for the funny stuff, the same as Newhart would.
There’s so much to say about the basics of plot that this is barely a start. It’s a rich area in most any type of creative writing, which isn’t too surprising given how difficult it can be. There are plenty of books out there that could teach you the same basic points. You could plunk down your money for them, or you could spend $8.50 at the local theater and watch Blue Jasmine, the latest Woody Allen film. It’s a fine example of ignoring the fundamentals of plot and getting away with it. And given all the gushing reviews it’s received, which probably happened because Woody Allen’s name is on it, the film is an even better example of the aforementioned turd in a punch bowl.