11 Functions of Plot

Photo © 2009 Jiří Děcký CC BY 2.0

I get the feeling that some critics vest too much importance in plot. They have a hundred criteria they use to disqualify a story. Is the plot original? Does it make sense? Is it too predictable? Are there any clichés? The thing is, you can create a 100% original plot that makes sense to someone and is completely unpredictable, and you can still have a crappy story. I’ve read plenty of stories that do just that. So does plot even matter?

I think it does, but perhaps not in the same way that people think of it. Plot is the series of events that connect the beginning to the ending. Every story must have a plot, and its plot must work within the story. But a great story is not just a collection of connected events. Think about it: Connected series of events happen every day. I got up this morning; I took a shower, had a cup of coffee; I checked my email, and I wrote this blog post. Yes, that could be the beginning of a plot. And who cares? Those kinds of plots happen every day. And everyday plots are boring.

Or as Holly Lisle has said, “Think of your novel as ‘A Life: The Good Parts Version.’ All the sex and violence, passion and struggle. None of the teeth-brushing.”

In my world, plot by itself doesn’t make or break a story. What makes a plot work is how it interacts with the rest of the story. Does the plot maintain and build the story’s conflicts? How do the characters affect and react to the plot? How does the plot affect the environment, the story universe? Plot is the telling of a story, not the source of it. Once you have sympathetic characters with human needs facing a compelling conflict, then you have a story. The plot comes out when you tell that story. Plot is a storytelling tool, not an end in itself.

Here are eleven things plot does for stories, to think about while planning your next one:

  1. Plot focuses attention on the significant parts of the characters’ lives. The story never tells everything that the characters go through. That would be boring, because most of what happens doesn’t actually matter. Remember, “Life: The Good Parts.” So your favorite character woke up on Tuesday morning. So what? Well, she woke up an hour late, because her alarm clock didn’t go off. And it’s her first day at a new job, which she and her seven-year-old daughter were counting on. And so forth…

  2. Plot focuses attention on the significant characters. Any character can be interesting, if she is central to the story that you’re telling. But just as we don’t tell everything that happens in a character’s life, we don’t delve deeply into every character. The characters who are central to the story end up being central to the plot. And if you find yourself spending a lot of time on secondary and tertiary characters, consider whether you should edit out those scenes.

  3. Plot motivates characters to affect the story. The plot feeds back on itself. That is, plot events serve as activating agents, which interact with the characters’ psychology, causing them to take action (or fail to take action), which pushes the plot along.

  4. Plot connects events for the reader. Plot gives flow and purpose to the story, a sense of continuity. This can make the story seem more plausible, because the reader feels that events are connected, causally or thematically, and not just random or contrived occurrences.

  5. Plot starts the story with a bang. That is, conflict promises change, and the plot begins as soon as you promise the first compelling change. Ideally, you should do this in the first sentence. Grab your reader right out of the gate.

  6. Plot engages in the middle of the story. Not just in the exciting beginning and satisfying end. If starting with a bang grabs your reader, what comes after drags him along. Because a compelling plot piles conflict upon conflict, change upon change. It creates tension and a desire in the reader to know what happens next. It allows you to have a “next.”

  7. Plot reveals the story gradually. Since a compelling plot represents a series of changing conflicts, the story develops from beginning to end. This provides motion and direction, a sense that the story is going somewhere.

  8. Plot leads to the climax. The climax is the point in the story where conflicting forces meet and promise to relieve the tension for the reader. It’s the story’s emotional high-point, the summit to which we climb while experiencing the story, the purpose for which we read it.

  9. Plot draws on the reader’s emotions. We humans are storytelling creatures, and the only such creatures on Earth. (At least until the extraterrestrials get here.) When we hear stories, part of our minds actually experience the events in the story, the plot. That’s why we react to fictional stories in a similar way to how we react to real events. So plot engages the reader’s emotions in the story’s events as they happen, and thereby in the characters’ goals.

  10. Plot ultimately releases the reader. An effective ending releases tension, solves a problem, satisfies a need. It’s like an emotional discharge. (Although I don’t know whether reading a story can discharge subconscious emotional expectations—that’s a different topic.) Whether this release occurs with an “Aha!” moment, by providing hope with a happy ending, or even just highlighting the depravity of humanity, the plot’s resolution gives the reader a sense of completion.

  11. Plot is a memento. Even though it does not require the reader to go on reading once the satisfying end had been achieved, an effective plot can cause a reader to continue to think about the story, to continue replaying scenes in her mind and daydreaming the story’s settings. Even to want to read the story again, or to read the next in the series.

What else does plot do for a story? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

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