Order From Chaos: On Structure and Plot (Part One)

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To the shapeless chaos of life, the fiction writer brings order.

-Peter Selgin

In fiction, many of us begin with characters, feelings, and events from our own lives. But lives are messy things and the events are often only loosely related (if at all).

Writer Peter Selgin says, “Such events are certainly the fodder for fiction, but only after they have been endowed with that interconnectedness that only dimly exists in everyday life--but which, in fiction, however quietly hidden under the surface of things, should be constantly felt.”

He’s talking about the difference between plot and story, which is summed up perfectly by E. M. Forster in Aspects Of The Novel.

“The King died, and then the Queen died” is a story. The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.

The word grief provides the missing link, their interconnectedness.

What Is Plot?

In his book, On Cunning And Craft: Sound Advice And Practical Wisdom For Fiction Writers, Peter Selgin explains that when we’re talking about plot, we’re talking about what happens in a story.

A good story raises questions and then answers them. And sometimes, those answers only provoke more questions. We read with the expectations that those questions and answers will lead somewhere, that they have some kind of purpose.

Many new writers believe that simply withholding information will keep people reading. They’ll write paragraph after paragraph before revealing vital information about characters, such as their names, occupations, and so on. But this is more likely to frustrate readers, make them throw in the towel, and toss the novel in the trash. Finding answers to those withheld questions can’t be the only point of reading.

Mr. Selgin tells us that the best plots are born of the conflict(s) between characters or between characters and setting, with protagonists supplying motivations, and antagonists providing conflict and obstacles.

He gives us an easy recipe for plotting a story. (1) Put your protagonist up a tree; (2) Throw rocks at him; (3) Get him down. Conflict, development, and resolution.

I hope that was helpful to you. Next week, in part two, I’ll be focusing on the structure of plot, because it’s nice to know that plot contains those three elements, but we also need to know how the story contains them.

Until then....


For more information: Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
& By Cunning and Craft by Peter Selgin

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