There are only so many.
Basically, every story goes something like this:
man, woman, child, animal-protagonist-treated-anthropomorphically deals with antagonists, nature, supernatural or alien elements in order to win love, get sex, save the world, right a wrong, win power, or just get what they want – including and up to acceptance in the world.
At least, that’s the way we do it in the west.
In fantasy, there’s usually at least one epic battle, and quiet often a more than archetypical Grand Journey.
You are probably not going to write anything new. Ever.
Which doesn’t really matter.
In the beginning, story was a way of teaching, of passing on history, norms, mores around the tribal campfire – in hopes of keeping the children safe, turning them into admirable and trustworthy adults, and preserving skill sets necessary to the survival of the community. Oh, and it was a way of making people laugh, too. Or whipping up anger and blood-lust in anticipation of battle or hunting.
It didn’t matter how many times the stories were told. It mattered HOW they were told. And the context – that mattered too – stories shared in the safe circle of the light, told in the rich voice of those who had probably lived long enough to know the story meant something important.
That’s not the way things are now. Plots are written to cajole dollars out of the pockets of investors and audiences. Which is why so many things in stories seem to blow up, so many women are tall, willowy and unclothed, and nothing truly important actually happens in the end. Oh, and why there’s always an ending – like dessert. Proven formulas that are pretty well guaranteed to bring in an audience, which means bringing in the bucks. Meaning doesn’t figure very deeply into this kind of storytelling.
I like a plot that’s honest – that doesn’t manipulate cause and effect, but instead factors in the real consequences of every choice. I don’t like it when writers stick in plot elements and then don’t deal with them—as though some actually very significant choices could be plot-neutral. If there isn’t time to deal with the consequences of those elements, the honest thing to do is leave them out altogether.
In the end, I want a story to move me. Make me think. Puzzle me and then have a true ah-ha moment in the end. What I really hate is when you invest a lot of time in a complex story – and then the writer presents the ah-ha moment – only, it fizzles. Like, this is your climax? So this whole thing has actually been about nothing?
You can actually make a pretty clear map out of a good plot. And if you’re writing a book, at some point, that’s exactly what you should do. Point for point, make a map. If you do this, a graphical representation of your plot twists and turns, you may be able to find places where the plot gets thin, or where it takes unnatural and unrealistic turns. Like, realistically, you can’t go very far west and suddenly find yourself in New York – not unless you start in Europe and cross water. The map gives you a chance to correct the incongruity before an agent or an editor gets turned off by it.
Another really good exercise is to ask yourself what the point of the book actually is. Because if your story is actually about something, your direction of movement becomes clear. Your plot elements line up and grow to that point, and your ah-ha moment has a better chance of working.
Most plots follow the same formula. You introduce life as it is at the beginning – characters and the status quo of their lives. Then you add the conflict, the obstacle, the source of the tension, the problem. Most of the book is the solving of the problem; in fantasy, this often translates as – your characters go on an epic journey. In mysteries, you collect testimony and evidence, dropping hints in scenes that expose character and add bits of backstory. Then you work your way to the climax – where the tension comes to the bursting point, all of the misdirection comes together in one place, the danger is faced, the truth finally revealed, the battle fought and won. And after that, the denouement – the winding down – the scattering of the cast – regular life, somewhat or totally changed, taken up again.
Real life is not like this, of course. Real life is full of small moments of climax, short times of denouement, and a constant stream of not very glamorous – and usually, thankfully, not terribly dangerous – annoying and distressing problems to be solved. If there are large climaxes, the good people don’t always win and the truth doesn’t always come out. And the life that follows is not clearly better, safer, more peaceful.
Stories are so neat and clean.
And I think maybe sometimes we don’t deal with life because we expect it to fit into a traditional narrative. I think we go to stories for the catharsis we don’t often find in life. Whether this is good or not, I don’t know. Our recent ancestors were suspicious of novels. Maybe this is partly why. Maybe fiction reading shortens our wind – we become good emotional sprinters, but lose our ability to last the long haul.
I’m going to have to think about that –