Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On Plotting

Crisis“A novel, play, or any type of writing, really is a crisis from beginning to end, growing to its necessary conclusion.”
Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing, 1946.

The playwright Lajos Egri wrote this classic book on the art of writing that is surely as appropriate as a resource for authors today as it was sixty-five years ago when he wrote it. It’s available in a new edition on Amazon.

What is Egri really telling us in the above quotation? From his other writing we learn that he strongly believes that plot is wholly dependent upon character development. That well drawn characters lead plot. This may be true. Certainly my own characters have occasionally led me down unexpected paths.

But here, I believe Egri is suggesting that we ask ourselves, “What does my principal character want? What is the nature of his/her crisis? Think of a few examples from films and books.
  • What did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz want?
  • Or ET in the movie of that name?
  • Or Harry Potter in any of the Potter books and movies?
  • Or Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice?
They each wanted something quite desperately. To go home (both Dorothy and ET), to overcome the evil wizard (Harry), to marry Mr. Darcy (Elizabeth). To a certain extent, what they wanted is not the issue. It was the urgency of that want that captured the viewers/readers.

Of course wanting alone was not enough to create a good plot. What made the plot work in every one of those cases?

Someone or something made the hero’s goal appear to be unobtainable. There was opposition at every turn. Not just the mild opposition of circumstance, but opposition that was urgent and important, seemingly unmovable, and in some of the above cases, even dangerous.

Mystery unravelledThis is the essence of plot building. One character, the hero, the protagonist, wants something desperately, urgently. Another character, the antagonist, wants a very different end that is in direct opposition to our hero’s wants.

This clash of wants is what creates conflict and conflict is the stuff good plots are built of. Whether that plot is a Harlequin Romance or Macbeth.

What are the most common wants , motivations, in literature?
  • Love
  • Life
  • Fear
  • Ambition
  • Revenge 
  • Justice
  • Money
There are others of course, but these seven and their endless permutations are probably the most common motivations in literature throughout history.

The clash between characters is, at its simplest level, one in which the hero’s actions are based on one of the above motivations and the antagonist’s are based on a different one. The more urgently the hero wants, and the more the antagonist blocks that want, the more completely readers will identify with the hero and keep reading.

However, to keep the readers reading, what the hero wants must be articulated clearly and early in the book and must then be thwarted at every turn. It must seem within grasp only to be snatched away. Characters must clash in interesting and exciting ways.

As authors we should ask ourselves, what is the next logical scene in this book? Then, instead of writing that expected scene, we should take a sharp turn to the left. Set up a problem that cries for resolution, and then not resolve it. This creates suspense, and suspense is the single most necessary ingredient to keep readers turning pages. We must regularly move in unexpected directions. This is as true in a simple love story as in in a complex Dan Brown novel of intrigue.

One very useful exercise is to take a book that really caught you. One you thoroughly enjoyed. Look at the last paragraph of every chapter. In varying degrees it will be a cliff-hanger. Something designed to make you turn the page, to start the next chapter.

ScheherrazadeIn a sense we must practice what Scheherazade practiced in one of the most ancient of stories, One Thousand and One Nights. The Sultan, if you remember, wed a new wife every night and had her executed the next morning. When he weds Scheherazade, she decides not to be the next dead wife. That night and every night thereafter, she tells the Sultan a new story, but she never finishes the story. She finishes it the next night, and immediately starts a new one which she leaves unfinished. This clever lass does this for – you got it -- one thousand and one nights. By that time the Sultan has gotten used to having her around and decides to keep her.
Her motivation—to stay alive. Surely the most fundamental of all motivations.
His motivation – to hear the end of the story.

I have not talked extensively here about the magic ingredient in any story, conflict. It is so complex a topic it deserves to be treated in a later blog.


This is the sixth in a series of articles on craft by Blair McDowell. For the others go to the Category, The Craft of Writing Fiction.
  • Which Comes First, Setting, Characters or plot?
  • On Voice
  • The Influence of Place on Plot
  • I Don’t Follow Umbrellas
  • The “O” word and Character Portrayal
Buy 'The Memory of Roses' here


Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company , to be released by Rebel Ink Press in April 2012.
The Memory of RosesDelighting in Your Company by Blair McDowell