So. In my creative writing class these days, we’re discussing the elements of short story. The students are preparing for and brainstorming a draft of their first short story, and over the last few class periods, we’ve focused on Plot. When considering this integral element of storytelling, I gravitate toward the work of Anne Lamott, specifically her seminal work on writing craft Bird by Bird.
There are some that discuss story as being either plot-driven or character-driven. I think that distinction is an erroneous one. I tend to agree with Lamott, who in her chapter on Plot from Bird by Bird says: “Plot grows out of character” (54).
All considerations from a storytelling perspective emerge after we, as writers, have an idea of who our main character might be. Decisions about Point of View and Conflict come in the wake of deciding who it is we’re dealing with. Now, this character may change along the way, but character is the starting point for all things Story, including Plot.
Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction (we can’t have a story without it), but in order to discover this element, we need the context of Character. Lamott instruct us to “find out what each character cares most about in the world, because then [we] will have discovered what’s at stake” (55). It’s in the pursuit of this desire that Conflict, and more specifically Plot, emerges.
The ABDCE’s of Plot
In her chapter on Plot, Lamott mentions a lecture she attended by Alice Adams, a writer and university professor who created a simple formula for Plot development. The formula she uses when writing a short story is ABDCE (Action, Background, Development, Climax and Ending).
To start, we need to draw the reader in with a compelling opening. This opening action is called an “inciting incident.” It’s the moment that launches the story into it’s upward trajectory and introduces the elements of Plot and Conflict.
Since Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, we need to discover why this action and conflict is so compelling to the characters. Who are these people? How have they come together? What’s happened before the story that informs the reaction to this initial action?
This section represents the bulk of the story. This is the “rising action” of the traditional plot pyramid. Here, we explore the Wants and Motives. The characters are Active and Tension builds. Each obstacle propels the characters further along the journey, and each obstacle is more difficult to overcome than the last.
The Climax is the most important moment of a story. This is the coming together, the turning point. Everything changes in the story and for the characters in the wake of this scene, this moment. After the Climax, things are different in a meaningful way.
As the journey comes to a close, as the characters come down from the emotional high of the Climax, the ending provides the necessary closure for the reader. Who are these characters now? How have they changed? Is the ending closed, or open? Did the character have an epiphany? The Ending needs to demonstrate the meaningful change that stems from the Climax.
5 Steps for Plot Development
Plot grows out of character, and Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction. When considering how our Plots will unfold, we need to remember that readers demand Unity in regards to Plot, a plausible cause-and-effect development. Also, readers demand Significance, that the story shows us something about human nature. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story?
Here are 5 Steps for Plot Development loosely based on Lamott’s ABDCE’s of Plot.
- Describe your story in one sentence. (If you can’t, you might not have a clear enough idea.)
- State what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot will emerge from this desire. After, stick 3 obstacles to prevent your character from obtaining this goal.
- Write a character description of your Protagonist. Include Look, Likes, Dislikes, Fears, Traumas, and Basic Living Situation.
- Arrange the events of your story on a timeline. What will happen in the Inciting Incident? In what order will your character deal with the 3 obstacles you previously development? What’s the Climax going to be?
- Finally, create a map of the Setting where the primary Action of your story will unfold. What’s meaningful about this place? Why is the Climax happening here? How can this Setting become a character in the story?