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?

 

 

Becoming a Storyteller: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard?

Stephen King, in his seminal work On Writing, says the following about Plotting:

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Wait, what? I’m a Plotter! Or, at least, I was until five seconds after I read that line recently. See, these days I’ve been stuck in neutral, my tires spinning in the slick mud of the writing journey, despite the fact that my headlamps are fixed on this shiny new idea. I’ve started a bit of World Building, and I’ve decided the audience, but I haven’t begun drafting. Like I said, I’m stuck.

I’m someone who has always preferred knowing where I was heading and how I was going to get there. Tell me the plan, or I’ll be wringing my hands–having heart palpitations. With this new story, I know who my main character is, and I know what his general conflict will be, I just haven’t been able to shift the damned story into drive yet. So, the plan today was to do a bit of Outlining. Apparently, outlining will get you insulted by a publishing maven, and is frowned upon in some circles.

I can remember outlining the bulk of first novel idea. There were several versions of the outline, and would deviate from it here and there, but there was a plan. I thought it helped to know where I was going–nay, I had to know where I was going. In a recent article for Writer’s Digest, author Steven James says there’s is an inherent problem with outlining.

“Here’s the problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more to uncover.”

James goes on to make an interesting point I had never considered when regarding the value of an outline. He says that outlining will result in weak transitions between planned scenes. When I think back to my manuscript, there’s no doubt I could shore up some of those links between the scenes I plotted ahead of time.

The Must Haves

In his article, James suggests a different approach, a more organic one. He says that a story must have the following:

an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of character or situation.

These must-have elements, especially the first couple, need to be planned. I’ve never be one for much meandering, but I could see how allowing the characters explore the conflict would be beneficial in terms of Believably and Causality. I think allowing the characters to roam might help in developing certain surprises, particularly for the reader. I see the value here, I’m just not sure I can practice this sort of writing.

This all makes me think of a quote from Bruce Lee.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

I realize there is a certain fluidity to the process of crafting a story, so, it might be time to listen to my good buddy, Bruce. At least he doesn’t insult me like Stephen.