Friday, November 03, 2006

plot, plot, plot

Last night, before we tackled this week's batch of stories (Edith Tiempo, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Elizabeth Bear, L. Timmel Duchamp), I gave a talk about plot. Partially to review the fundamentals we covered much earlier this year, but also to discuss the statement that every writer hears eventually: there are no new ideas.

Of course, this needs to be qualified. There are always new approaches, new treatments, new textures and such, but basically the thought is more this: there are no new plots.

Plot is what happens in a story (while structure is the order in which the plot is presented). What these authors and thinkers are saying is this: we've seen it all before.

And yet there are always new stories, aren't there? That's because while the plots may be same-old, same-old, the approach (or discourse) is different. This is where the writer's craft and imagination come in.

So if these plots are finite, what are they? Are they helpful to the writer?

I think they're more helpful to the literary critic than an author, but it does pay to at least know what people are talking about - and add the notions to your writer's toolbox if you find them useful.

There Can Be Only One

Some say there is only one plot in the universe: Conflict. A story - all stories - must have some kind of conflict - overt, covert, physical, emotional, spiritual, what have you. It is an umbrella term that is hard to argue against, but once you start thinking of exclusions, you're on to something.

The Three Plots

Some say there are there plots:

1. The Happy Ending - where the right choice is made
2. The Unhappy Ending - where the wrong choice is made
3. The Literary Story - where no choices are made due to the absence of choices to be made (think Oedipus); ends in tragedy mostly

The Seven Plots

More familiar to most:

1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment
4. man vs. machines/technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. god/religion

I consider "nature" the natural order; and "the environment" as encompassing not just the obvious (surroundings), but also manmade constructs (language, society, art). Which of course opens the entire thing to overlaps, but what the hell.

Tobias' Top Twenty

In his book (20 Master Plots), Ronald Tobias lists 20 (thank you, Wikipedia!):

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. The Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension

We gave examples of stories for each of these things, argued about the differences and similarities and general utility of such lists; and, being gamers at heart, we ended up rolling dice to generate challenge plots to write for fun. (If you want to try: roll an 8-sided die for the 7 plots (rerolling, naturally, on an 8) and a 20-sided die for Tobias' set. The results will amuse you. If you don't have these odd dice, randomize some other way.)

It was a raucous time and set the mood for our discussions of the four stories on the table - and gave us more insight into this process we call writing.


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