Monday, 10 October 2011

Three Ps in a Plot

by Anne Stormont

A finished novel is a work of art. The writer is an artist whose medium is language and whose artefact is a story. The story is what the reader interacts with, what the reader experiences. The story is a journey from A to B – or indeed, C to E via B, A then D – it can be non-linear, circular, long or short. But story is NOT plot.

Plot is an element of the writer’s craft. Plotting is a technical skill. A technically sound plot will not only ensure the reader arrives at journey’s end, but that they will get the most out of the experience. The successful plot needs Perspective, Possibilities and Pauses.

There is an assertion often made by tutors of writing that there are only seven basic plots in novel writing. You might dispute the precise number, but it’s probably fair to assume it’s a relatively small, finite amount. So, in order to produce a novel that is fresh and original, the writer’s choices as regards the permutations, dynamics and interaction of the ‘Three P’s’ are crucial.

I feel a metaphor coming on. I have a friend who is a hill-walking and mountaineering guide. When preparing to lead a party of walkers or climbers, she has to think about navigating and route-finding for the expedition. The start and end points of the trip are fixed and every mountain will have its own story to tell its visitors. But the guide must choose whether to navigate from north or south, whether to turn east or west at some point and must keep checking along the way that the bearings are true. Navigation decisions give a particular perspective. Then there are the route finding possibilities – will she lead the party along a well worn path, will she take a new, unexplored line, will she take them over rough or easy terrain? And finally – where will the rest points, viewpoints and possible side trips occur?

So author as tour guide – it works for me.

When plotting, the writer chooses the perspective from which the reader will view the story. The narration provides the map, compass and waymarkers - and may well leave some decisions and interpretations to the reader. The author will also provide intriguing possibilities as to where the path is heading, there will be some satisfying predictability and some unforeseen twists. And there may well be pauses – places to reflect, to look back, to study the horizon before pressing on.


All these decisions will be crucial for how the reader experiences the story. The plot lines determine how the artefact of the story is revealed. Anyone can tell a story - but only an artist can show it in its best and most intriguing light – and that is down to the ‘Three P’s’.  

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