Let’s go FiYoShiMo Day 14, there’s a good topic on our plate today. Onto more plot goodness!
We’ve all been there – we left a light on in the kitchen, we forget to replace the toilet paper, we skip items on the grocery list. It’s easy to overlook and forget things, especially when we’re stressed (it is the holiday season after all), or when we’re already so busy worrying about whether or not some fascist with a combover might be a legitimate political presence sans a Hugo Boss leather trenchcoat.
Today we’re going to talk “plot negligence”, which is the collective term for all those plot elements that get introduced but don’t get resolved.
It’s so easy to write a thing and forget about it, when page counts climb and larger plot things kick off. “Oh I’ll get back to it,” you say, but then the minor point falls to the wayside. Or maybe it’s not a minor point. Maybe it’s a big deal, but due to time or space or energy, you don’t address it when it needs addressing.
The good news is that you can learn to curb the habit. I can’t promise you’ll never do this again, not without miniaturizing myself and navigating your mind. And I’m not sure you want that, especially if I find out where you store your weird freaky thoughts about that one teacher you had, or the people you work with. Yeah, you should totally give that person your number. And give them my number. Hell, give them all the numbers hashtag ifyouknowwhatiamsaying.
So we begin by figuring out what you’re leaving unresolved. We have to talk about that, we can’t talk plot and not talk about plot construction. A plot is built out of a scenes, like we talked about yesterday, and these scenes are scalar, to some degree.
In shortest, simplest terms, plot is a set of scenes strung together because they represent an arc, or a progression of ideas that show some kind of change from beginning to end. The change doesn’t have to be all positive – you can show someone diving face-first into a habit or addiction, you can show someone on the decline – but there does have to be change and it has to be “visible”, meaning the reader can pick up on it. To be visible, you have to put it into words, because readers read text not minds, so if you don’t say anything about a thing, who’s going to know about it?
An arc has parts we all recognize to some degree: a beginning (inciting action), a middle (rising action), and an end (climax and conclusion). It has to start somewhere, it has to travel to some other point, it has to end at that other point.
Usually the negligence happens during the middle. It’s easy and even exciting to start stuff, but when it’s revealed there has to be a middle, screw that, let’s do something else exciting (you may have heard this same idea expressed around diet, exercise, doing your job, or cleaning). So what is it about arc-middles that makes us not followthrough?
Maybe we can come at this from the ends. What makes plot-start exciting?
New is always exciting. New toys, news people, new experiences. Since we’re early in our exposure to a thing, we’re not sick of it yet. There are things left to discover, and often a lot of unknowns to make known. Plot-starts, also called inciting actions, are interesting to write, because we’re usually writing them as an alternative to what we’ve been writing already. We take a break from the middle of something to introduce something else.
These introductions can happen any time, though they’re best when started in the first act of whatever you’re making, because the later an element is introduced, the less time you have for a payoff and the less native it will feel to the story. Imagine reading hundreds of pages about a questing knight, and only in the last fifty does the knight get a sword, but not the sword he’s been hearing about all book, just a plain old magical sword. If that sword suddenly becomes the go-to weapon that kills the dragon he’s been battling all book, whatever weapons he’s had pre-sword get cheapened.
An inciting action (or incident) has two pieces: a tension, and a release.
The tension is the moment or event the character sees happening that prompts action or intervention. It isn’t the moment where they act (that comes next), this is the moment that leads to them doing something. For a budding superhero, this is the mugging they see and think they can stop.
Tension prompts action. They see the mugging, so they go do something about it. Whatever they do (and if you’re showing a character’s first attempts at something, barring superpowers, that first attempt is often played for comedy. With superpowers it’s played for amusement or excitement), they do something, and that leads to the release of the inciting action (beat). Yes, it’s our old friend, the action beat, making an appearance.
The release is the character doing something about it. They see the mugging, they intervene. The payoff, the reward for seeing action is taking action to do something about it. It’s a cycle of beats. It doesn’t have to get more complicated than “see a thing, react”.
An inciting action (beat) to your character is some other character’s climax, or their conclusion, or whatever, it falls somewhere on their arc already in progress. The mugging our proto-hero stops, if we look at the mugger’s arc, maybe that’s the height of their (the mugger’s) story.
These inciting actions are exciting to write, because they’re new, because they’ve got stuff going on, because it’s a chance to show the character doing something. Doing stuff is a chance to show off your writing skills. It’s also a chance to show off the ideas you have for the character, at least in part.
Once things are started though, they do have to be sustained, and that’s where we start to lose interest. Because it’s work. Because the newness has worn off. Because once you rescue one cat out of a tree, the idea that you have to rinse-and-repeat for all the cats in the forest is tiring, and you haven’t even started yet.
We’re going to talk about plot sustenance tomorrow in more detail, but let me lay out some foundations here – nothing has changed so drastically since the inciting action, just your view and expectation of the idea.
Sustaining an arc is not the same as furthering it or developing it. Sustaining the arc means it doesn’t do anything other than progress at its current pace in its current direction. It doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t rise or climb, it flattens out and stays in that direction. How could that not be duller than watching hair move?
Yes, I hear you, doing things the same way over and over is how we build a habit. But we’re not talking about writing everyday or not eating that candy bar, we’re talking about showing your character do stuff in your story. The specifics of what your character does are immaterial at this point, so long as the character is doing something.
It’s still work, I know. It takes up space and words, and you have way more exciting things to talk about. It’s way cooler to use the computer than to build it, I get it. But you have to get through this stuff to get to whatever you think is the more exciting part.
Here too, I question you, why isn’t talking about a character’s arc exciting you? Why is the arc here? Yes, you need one, but if it’s not interesting, compelling, or exciting to you, why are you writing it, and do you think it will excite the reader if you’re not jazzed by it either?
When I look at discarded arcs, I see either a deficit of excitement, or over complication.
The second part of an arc, the rising action, is a build-up to a climax. This consumes the second act of the arc. It’s what happens after the hero discovers powers, before they go confront the big bad. This is often a montage, but since we’re writing, we get to detail the montage.
Look, complicating a thing doesn’t necessarily make it better. Think about cell phones and your parents. You know they’re just going to use it to make calls and barely listen to voicemails, so why bother explaining to them that they can make a WiFi hotspot or that it can listen to all the music ever?
The climax needs to be reached no matter what, so why clutter up the route to it? I don’t mean get to it quickly (not A-B-done), I mean why make so many digressions? Why dilute the progress with detours? Are you just showing off that you can write? Are you hunting for someone to say “Good job <YOUR NAME HERE>, you’re officially a writer now. Take off your pants and relax” ??
You have the whole second act, so use it. Keep each action beat functioning as the cog in the machine it is. You don’t have to escalate the power level so drastically every step of the way, the increase comes in the potential for success. Just like the montage, the outcome is mastery and confidence, progress from unknown to known.
The last part of an arc is the climax and resolution. In larger terms, if we zoom out, this is just a release for the tension of the first two acts.
A climax is the height of story experience. It’s where all the groundwork of the previous parts gets acted upon, which is why a climax often lives in the back of act 2 or start of act 3. It needs that much time to germinate, it needs that much prep in order to get a proper delivery. Rush your climax, and no one is satisfied.
But your climax is built on your prep work. Skimp on the development, and it will read and feel like things are missing (because they are). Diligence, here, dear writer. Keep your focus small and keep going, a beat at a time.
That’s all you’re doing. Yes, you’ve got your outline, your character study, your developmental notes. You’ve got a queue of beta readers, you’ve got all these things in a row like little ducks … but they all come AFTER the part where you tell the story a beat at a time.
Post-climax, there must be resolution. Resolutions are the other part people skip, and I think it’s because it’s either perceived as boring to wrap things up (remember how weird it was that so many 80s cartoons ended with characters in a group all laughing?) or there’s some fear that if this thing ends, you won’t be able to generate a next exciting idea? I know that fear really well, it has kept me from finishing a lot of things in my life.
Ideas are always there, as is your ability to craft and shape them into story. We all got this. We can all do it. We just have to keep at it.
Tomorrow, we’re talking plot sustenance, see you then.