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Plotting: The Basic Pattern

by Linda Hope Lee

Plot may be defined as what happens in the story, the sequence of events that occurs as the character attempts to solve his problem or reach his goal.

But plot is more than simply a recounting of events. A plot must have shape and form. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must have a purpose, a reason for being. At the end of the plot some change must have occurred, either in the character, the situation, or both.

If there is no change at the end of the plot, you do not have a story.

The Beginning

Think of your character as existing in a relatively stable situation; that is, his life is going along well and uneventfully. Then, something happens to upset this balance.

He now has a problem to solve or a goal to reach. Perhaps something in his external world occurs, such as being fired from his job. Perhaps something in his internal world triggers the situation; e.g., he decides to quit his job and look for something better.

Whatever, the relatively stable situation has been upset. This occurrence marks the beginning of your plot. (Note: it does not necessarily mean you have to begin writing the story at this point. See my Tip Sheet Where to Start Your Story for help in determining whether to being writing before, during, or after this important event.)

No matter where you begin writing, the beginning has several functions:

1. To introduce the main character(s).
2. To establish the mood and the setting.
3. To tell us what the problem or goal is (or at least hint at it).
4. To grab our interest and compel us to read on!

Sound like a tall order? It isn’t, really. But I would say that beginning writers have the most trouble with numbers 3 and 4. I have read short stories with rambling openings that don’t get to the main issue until after several pages. I have read opening chapters of proposed books that give me only a vague idea of what the book will be about.

Remember, the competition for your reader’s attention is fierce. You must convince him he should read your story/novel rather than the multitude of others he may choose from.

Why should he read your story? You must promise him something. For example, “In this story you will see how Mary and Joe solve their communication problem.”

Not only that, but to meet the requirement of Number 4, you must show the reader, with interesting characters and setting, with a lively, literate style, that reading your story will be worth his time invested. He will be entertained/amused/provoked/stimulated; whatever, he will be enriched by the experience.

The Middle

This is the part of the story where the character acts, where he attempts to solve his problem or reach his goal. This section is full of conflict and obstacles. Your hero takes action, only to be met with an obstacle. So, he tries something else. He keeps trying.

You have done your work on characterization, so you know which of his basic needs, emotions, and traits relate to the situation. Therefore, you will know what kinds of actions your character will take.

It is important to remember that in the middle the level of drama does not stay the same. That is, each time the hero attempts to reach his goal, he gets closer. Each time he meets an obstacle, it puts him farther away. Stories that have the same level of drama all the way through tend to be boring, and one of the commandments of writing is: Thou shalt not bore the reader!

Finally, comes the crisis. At the crisis, your character should be the farthest possible away from the outcome you have planned for him. This is often called The Blackest Moment. At this moment, it looks as though all is lost; or, if all is to be lost, it looks as though all is gained.

The Ending

The ending includes the climax. The climax is the turning point, the point at which a resolution will be made: either the character will reach his goal, or he will not reach his goal. (Actually, there are other resolutions, but for simplicity we will consider only these two here.)

Quickly following the climax is the denoument (in French, “an untying”). The denoument returns us to the relatively stable situation of the beginning. It ties up any loose ends. It allows us to relax a little after all the high drama of the crisis and the climax.

Remember, however, that the character is not in the same place he was in the beginning. Either he or the situation or both has changed.

Let’s look at a sample plot:

Lynne wants a stepfather for her eight-year-old son, Robbie. Not just anyone, but someone who will teach him to be big and tough and self-confident. Robbie’s birth father hadn’t been strong; he’d been gentle, and his gentleness had led to his death.

At work, Lynne meets Matt. A building contractor, Matt is big, broad-shouldered, and athletic. She decides he’d be the perfect father for Robbie. She invites Matt home. Matt and Robbie hit it off. Matt teaches the boy to play basebell. He takes him to games. He begins to toughen him up.

Shortly after Matt and Lynne marry, Robbie begins to have accidents. Matt accuses him of being accident prone. Robbie has more accidents, each one worse than the one before. Unable to cope with the situation, Matt leaves.

Upset, Lynne absent-mindedly leaves a pot of stew on the stove and falls asleep. A fire erupts. Robbie gets the neighbors to call the fire department, then breaks into the house and rescues his mother.

Both Matt and Lynne realize that their son is strong, after all. A doctor helps them understand that his accidents were purposive. They allowed him to escape engaging in the tough-guy activities Matt and Lynne wanted for him.

Everyone learns that there are different kinds of strengths.

Okay, now let’s analyze the story.

What starts the sequence of events that becomes the plot? Lynne’s decision to find a father for Robbie. Since an internal action such as this doesn’t make for high drama and because some time elapses between her decision and her meeting Matt, this wouldn’t be the best place to actually begin writing.

The story opens with Lynne meeting Matt at work. The information about Robbie’s father is worked in through flashback. (See Tip Sheet on Flashback for more information on this technique.)

For a while, it looks as though Lynne is going to reach her goal. Matt and Robbie hit it off, and Matt begins teaching the boy some of the things Lynne thinks he should know.

Then, however, things begin to go wrong. This is the middle of the story where complications occur. Robbie begins to have accidents. Between the accidents, things to right again, which heads Lynne toward her goal. But each accident gets worse, until Matt finally gives up and leaves. This is the crisis, or Blackest Moment. Lynne is the farthest possible away from her goal of getting a father for Robbie.

The climax of the story is the fire. Robbie rescues his mother, and Lynne and Matt realize their son has strength, after all. The denoument shows their being reuinited into a family again.

© 2002 by Linda Hope Lee

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