At some point, usually early on, beginning writers stumble across the term plot structure. It’s a loaded term, a deceptive term, a deceitful term, and a necessary term.
The premise underlying most mentions of plot structure is formulaic: follow the prescribed steps and you’ll have a hit on your hands. In the first paragraph of this section Hills addresses and dispenses with that premise in exhaustive fashion, neatly demonstrating that all such formulas are of a kind:
There seems to be no limit to the formulas for the movement of fiction that can be devised: anyone can make up his own quite easily. If any one of them really means anything, then it would seem they must all mean the same thing — which strikes me as a frightening thought.
Underpinning all plot formulas is the rather inescapable truth that anything that is written (or read) must have a beginning, middle, and end. But there’s a critical difference between the beginning and end of what you write and the beginning and end of the story you’re telling. As noted in previous sections, a big part of the craft of storytelling involves deciding what to emphasize and detail and choosing what to glide over and omit.
The temptation to embrace plot structure as a storytelling template is compelling for both novices and veterans alike, in all genres. But doing so puts the writing cart before the storytelling horse. (Which is, of course, the appeal.)
Writers who cling to structure as a guide tend to invent scenes that fulfill whatever formulaic approach they’ve adopted. Scenes are filtered first through the prism of structure, then, if they pass that test, are written and riveted into place. (To be fair, the result may in fact be serviceable — although probably for reasons other than the formula employed.)
The proper approach to plot structure is to embrace the story first, even if only roughly and in your mind. Why? Because understanding what Character X or Character Z is doing during the story is necessary if you’re going to judge which moments to depict and which to elide. [ Read more ]