The ABDCE’s of Plot Development

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.

typewriterAnneLamottThere 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).

Action

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.

Background

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?

Development

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.

Climax

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.

Ending

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.

  1. Describe your story in one sentence. (If you can’t, you might not have a clear enough idea.)
  2. 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.
  3. Write a character description of your Protagonist. Include Look, Likes, Dislikes, Fears, Traumas, and Basic Living Situation.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

 

 

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“Don’t Shove Me in Your Damned Pigeonhole” and other Thoughts on Writing from Ursula K. Le Guin

So. We lost a literary titan on Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, at 88, died at her home in Portland, Oregon. Her son confirmed the death, and while he didn’t specify a cause, he did say she’d been in poor health for months. Le Guin was an influential and immensely popular author who brought the world the Earthsea epic fantasy cycle, as well as her science-fiction opus The Left Hand of Darkness.

Le Guin was a prolific author, whose pointed use of speculative fiction helped elevate entire genres to the level of literary fiction. A trailblazer in the truest sense of the term, Le Guin thrived in an environment in which she should have failed, forced to employ genre conventions that belied her vision and voice.

Throughout her productive writing career, Le Guin spent an extraordinary amount of time teaching as well. She published a guide to the craft of writing called Steering the Craft in 1998, and she was incredibly forthcoming in interviews with the Paris Review, in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times and later on her website titled “On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy,” as well as in a blogpost called “Navigating the Ocean of Story” for BookViewCafe.com.

We could spend years analyzing her work, showing how she inspired so many of the modern literary greats like Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Patrick Rothfuss, but today I want to take a look at five insightful thoughts she shared on writing over the years.


1. Begin with a Clear Sense of One Character

In her essay The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that a novel should begin with a clear sense of one character. The best way to start?

“With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

2. Our Characters Must Fascinate Us

“the characters of a novel and short story fascinate us slowly, deeply, by their passion, their pain, their moral and psychological complexity”   –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

As writers, we need to understand that it’s Character that draws us into Story. The characters provide the requisite emotional connection, which then propels us along the journey of the story. Above, Le Guin provides us with the “how” as writers to create that connection with the reader.

3. Exposition isn’t Wicked

“the fear of ‘distancing’ leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment.”    –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

Here, Le Guin is lamenting the movement toward the immediacy of the present tense. The use of this tense limits the writer in her mind, and I tend to agree. She argues in the essay the “show, don’t tell” writing cliché has sent the writers in her workshops reeling away from exposition, a necessary element in world building.

As writers, we need to fully envision our worlds and our characters, and the past tense affords us the room to explore the complexities of these elements. It’s the exploration of these elements that lends enchantment to our stories.

4. Find a Rhythm

“I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey–you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.”   Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

As writers, we need to find a groove and settle in. Similarly, what we’re trying to do with our stories also requires a groove. It’s a simple idea, but it’s an archetypal one. We have a predisposition to this journey as readers and writers, and we need to embrace it.

5. You Do You

“where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

Le Guin fought and overcame stereotypes throughout her career. By all accounts, she shouldn’t have been as successful as she was, being a female voice in the male-dominated world of speculative fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Her perspectives on identity and society, her deliberate treatment of race and gender, all of these things helped her breakout of the “sci-fi author” pigeonhole. And thank God she did.

As writers, we need to embrace our Voice, our perspective, and tell the stories we need to tell. We can’t worry about the labels, or pigeonholes, that we or our stories receive later. We have to be true to ourselves. And let our tentacles spread out in all directions.


Here are a few bonus thoughts from Le Guin:

  • Reading is Fundamental

“Real writers read” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story” 

  • What’s our greatest tool as writers?

“imagination working on observation” from “On Rules of Writing”

  • Get to work!

“You can’t waste time” from The Paris Review

  • Because…

“Skill is the product of experience” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story”

  • Be Who You Are!

“When people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer.”  from The Paris Review