The Perfect Story
Plotting: Part One-Introduction, Exposition, Conflict
(Author's note: If you are, or intend to be, a NaNoWriMo participant, feel free to chuck any or all of the advice in the following series if you find it slows you down or stops you from writing in November. To paraphrase Captain Barbossa from the referenced movie, they're really not rules so much as 'guidelines'.)
As the folks here at the virtual office all know, my favorite movie is "The Pirates of the Caribbean". I received a copy of the DVD for Christmas last December and I've since watched it over a dozen times. The other day, while home alone, with nothing to do, I decided to watch it again. Only, this time, as the opening credits rolled, I decided to watch from a story critic's perspective. I wanted to know exactly what it was about this film that so captured my imagination, and the imagination of millions. I don't fall in love with every film I see. What was it about this story that put it so far above countless others?
What I learned during this viewing is something I've known ever since I first began studying writing in high school. Why I keep forgetting these oft-repeated lessons when I sit down to pen my own fiction is an exercise for the reader.
No matter which media form it takes, whether it be novel, film, or stage production, all successful long fiction achievements have certain common elements. People have dedicated their lives to disseminating these tried-and-true principles of story writing. So it behooves the truly serious author to learn these truths and make every attempt to employ them in their own writing. After all, when you want a car, you go out and buy one. You don't build one from scratch. And even if you do build your own, you rely on the principles passed on to you by others. This not to say that your own work will not be original. Of course, it will be. But there is neither need nor reason to reinvent the wheel.
Some of the elements of the perfect story can be modified or even, in certain cases, ignored entirely. However, here are three elements which form the foundation of all fiction. Plot, setting and characterization. Each of these is absolutely essential and volumes have been written on each of these elements alone. But, for the purposes of this article, an overview will have to suffice.
Plot is the bane and beauty of every writer's dreams. To write a story which engages the reader and achieves the writing goal is what makes writers write. It has been said that there are only 30 plots that have ever existed. So, theoretically, all you have to do is pick one and tailor it to your needs. I say theoretically, because, in practice, if it were that easy, everyone would be a best-selling author.
However, if we assume that the writer has talent, what remains is an exercise in craftsmanship. A carefully-crafted plot is one which initially engages the reader, makes him or her suspend their disbelief, and maintains their interest until the final word is read. A writer ignores the rules of plot craftsmanship at his own peril.
The elements of a good plot are introduction, exposition, conflict, theme, climax and denouement. All of these elements will come into play in the construction of a good story.
Introduction is exactly what it sounds like. As the writer, you are introducing your reader to the story. "Hello, Reader, I'd like you to meet my old friend, Action-Adventure Story. Action, this is Reader." If you remember this truism, you will never have to wonder how to open your story. And until you've decided what kind of story you are writing, you can't write an introduction.
"The Pirates of the Caribbean" is just this sort of action-adventure story. It opens immediately with something exciting and action-packed. The burning wreckage of a ship is discovered, apparently the work of pirates, by the crew and passengers of another ship. Not only does this opening indicate that the discovering crew and their ship may be in danger, it necessitates a search for survivors. From the very beginning, the audience has been told to expect danger and a fast pace. So, they would be wise to hold onto their seats.
After the introduction is the exposition, which is the setup for the climax. The reader needs to be given information in order to follow the story, and to care about the tale you are telling. So, the exposition is a literary fact-finding mission. In "The Pirates of the Caribbean", we learn that the heroine has grown up to be the beautiful daughter of a colonial governor. She has a terrible secret, and she is going to be wooed by three men. We also learn that everyone in the story is both alternately fascinated by or adverse to pirates, including the pirates themselves.
Next in our elemental plot lineup is conflict. Without conflict, there is no need for resolution. If there is no need for resolution, there is no story to tell. Simple, but true. Conflict can come in many forms and is as individual as the story, but it must be present. Setting up conflict requires moving into the details of the story which is unfolding.
Conflict tells the reader that there is a problem and what the problem is. It might be easier to understand what conflict is if you think of it as the posing of a question which you, as the author, will ultimately answer by the end of the story.
As the author, you can, and probably should, pose several questions. Long fiction is, by its very nature, complex. If it isn't complex, you might as well be writing a grocery list.
The conflicts within "The Pirates of the Caribbean" are many, and one of the primary reasons the story is so successful. Will the heroine reveal her secret? Is the antihero a good guy or a bad guy? Will the good guys find a way to beat the bad guys? Will the hero and heroine live happily ever after? Will the villain succeed or be punished? Will the characters we've taught our readers to love be justly rewarded for their good deeds? The answers to these questions form the basis of the next element in writing the plot to the perfect story, theme.