October 25th 2011
The Skill List Project: Plot Flow
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, I talked about overall plot structure, and how to develop a starting seed into a plot…but I was working on the “big picture” level: the overall content of the story.
This time, I’m going to step down a rung on the ladder to look at the general flow of a plot. In terms of my vocabulary of plot units, I’m talking about the flow from act to act and scene to scene.
Having a meaningful flow is crucial for ensuring that your story hangs together. Without it, readers won’t be able to follow what’s going on, or else they won’t be engaged enough to care.
Words of Wisdom from “South Park”
This clip from the TV show “Stand In” features Matt Stone and Trey Parker talking about plotting South Park episodes. Their approach is simple: plot elements must be connected by either “Therefore” or “But”. In other words, each element of the plot is either a direct consequence of the preceding element, or else stands in opposition to it.
As an example (since we’re close to Halloween), the first scene of a story might be Character A resolving to win the “Best Costume” award at the high school Halloween dance. If the next scene is “Therefore”, it might show the same character starting to make his or her costume; if the next scene is “But”, it might show someone else, Character B, who also resolves to win the award, thereby setting up an obvious conflict. If every scene is connected to the previous one by a clear-cut “Therefore” or “But”, the result is an easy-to-follow and cohesive story-line.
Now a novel isn’t as compressed as a half-hour cartoon, so there’s scope for more sophisticated through-lines. Nevertheless, “Therefore” and “But” are still the principal tools of plot development (or at least plot presentation). “Therefore” and “But” let readers grasp the connection from one plot element to the next; people won’t have to ask, “What does this scene have to do with what I just read?”
(Most book readers are willing to grant a writer some slack, especially in the first few pages. If, for example, the first scene shows some terrible act of carnage—the classic “Let’s slaughter some innocent villagers to prove that the bad guys are scum” opening—and then the second scene shows a hero being heroic, readers take it for granted that the hero will end up dealing with the villager killers, even if there’s no obvious connection. In other words, the readers will infer a big neon-flashing “But” even if you don’t spell it out. The hero’s very essence is a direct “But” to the opening villainy.)
Parallelism is another easy-to-follow connection between plot elements. I’ll call this a “Likewise” connection. For example, Scene 1 might show Character A getting ready for the Halloween dance; Scene 2 shows Character B doing the same thing. While there’s no “Therefore” or “But” here, the “Likewise” connects the two so that readers immediately grasp that the scenes are part of the same story. Scene 3 could do the same with a Character C…although by that time, readers will probably be saying, “Stop futzing around, let’s get to the dance already!”
That’s the danger with “Likewise”—too much direct parallelism can feel like treading water rather than making forward progress. For example, Scene 2 and Scene 3 above will be more satisfying to readers if they carry a hint of “But”. Even if they don’t reveal an obvious conflict between the characters, they might suggest seeds of friction that may blossom into greater problems. Alternatively, Scenes 2 and 3 might escalate elements of Scene 1, providing a sort of “Therefore” ambiance, even if there’s no over cause-and-effect through-line.
(Example: In Scene 1, Character A sees an odd flash of light out of the corner of his eye. In Scene 2, Character B sees her school ring actually glowing in the dark; the glow slowly fades. In Scene 3, Character C sees the face of a murdered classmate reflected in the mirror. At this point, readers will still be saying, “Let’s get to the dance,” but they’ll be saying it with happy anticipation rather than being frustrated that the story is spinning its wheels.)
In novels, one common flow technique consists of multiple stands proceeding forward “simultaneously”. In practice, this means switching between two or more flows of action: a scene with Character A, a scene with Character B, a scene with Character C, then back to A again, and so on. Modern readers are very comfortable with this approach and have no trouble following it; however, it’s strongly advisable to bind the separate flows together at frequent intervals, to reassure people that they’re still reading a cohesive whole. For example, Characters A, B and C might all pass through the same location at different times, or meet the same supporting characters, or hear different versions of the same apocryphal legend. These touch-ins and callbacks keep the strands clinging together, even when individual plot-lines stay separate.
Of course, each independent strand should still flow with “Therefore” and “But”. These connections are crucial in a multi-strand story, to make sure that readers don’t get lost. If you’ve just had scenes with Characters B and C, when you come back to Character A, it’s important to remind readers (subtly) of what A was up to. It’s also important to show how the new scene is a direct “Therefore” or “But” with respect to what A was previously doing.
If there isn’t a clear continuity (in time, place and intention) for each independent strand, readers are likely to get confused. In general, that’s a bad thing: once in a very long while, you may deliberately want to confuse the reader for artistic effect, but that’s a risky high-wire stunt which should be used sparingly. Clarity is the bread-and-butter goal for most writing.
(While I’m talking about multi-strand novels, let me vent a pet peeve: books that robotically cycle from A-thread to B-thread to C-thread, over and over, never varying the pattern. Not only does this make the book feel formulaic and predictable, it often leads to empty filler. At points in the plot, it often happens that A and C are doing interesting things, but B is in a holding pattern in order to keep all three plot threads in sync—B can’t move forward or else his/her thread would end before A’s and C’s. So what does the author do? The formulaic pattern requires a B scene, so you get one in which nothing meaningful happens. Argh! The obvious way around this is to avoid locked-in repetitive patterns, and to write scenes for characters only when those characters can actually move their personal stories forward.)
Tune in Next Time
That’s it from me for this time. Next time, I’ll look at scene construction, one of the most important skills in writing fiction. In the meantime, let’s hear your comments!
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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