Sunday, February 07, 2010

Plot, Story and Chapter One

I found myself nattering on elsewhere about opening chapters and when to introduce the central conflict.  As I hate to waste a good natter, I brought it back here.

The question was -- when do we start talking about the central conflict of a story?  The first chapter?

Says I, at tedious length . . .

Fiction tells a story.  'Story' can usually be boiled down to a few sentences.  The brevity is part of how you know you've got to the heart of the story.  As in;

-- Luke Skywalker is called to become a hero. He overcomes his own doubts and fears, faces evil, and defeats it. He grows up.

-- Elizabeth Bennet must establish herself. Challenged by forces that attempt to abash and belittle her, she is steadfast in maintaining her own worth. This makes her the equal of a man of superior rank and she marries well.

-- Meg Murry must rescue her kidnapped brother. Her angry, adolescent stubbornness fuels her fight to his side, but it is a recognition of the mature and generous love inside her that saves him.

That is 'story'.
This is what the book is 'about'.

Story is generally cast as a conflict between the protagonist and something else. No rule on this; it's just a natural form for story.

Now 'plot' is a whole 'nother animal from 'story'.
'Plot' is the set of carefully orchestrated incidents that tells story.

If 'story' is the concept of a warm, dry, large and beautiful house,
'plot' is pine boards, cement, sinks, pipes, tiles and hardibacker.

The abstract form that is story controls the solid structure that is plot.  It compells us to economy and logic.  We don't get to stick a sink upside the second floor landing just because it's a hellofabeautiful sink.

Because a book is an organic whole, every scene in the book should be an incident -- a piece of plot -- that tells 'story'.  

-- Meg Murry makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That action is 'about' rescuing her brother or 'about' confronting her inner anger.

-- Elizabeth attends a ball. The scene is 'about' the gulf between her sense of self-worth and society's perception of her.

-- Luke balances rocks with his mind. In the deeper sense, this scene is 'about' him facing his own fears and uncertainties.

So the first test of any scene is --'How does it tell story?'

It doesn't matter whether this is Chapter Twelve, Chapter Thirty-two or Chapter One -- every incident tells story. The first chapters don't get a free pass from this requirement.

How does this work in practice with first chapters?
How do we 'tell story' in the first scene?

The first chapters show
Luke's uncertainties and his vague feeling that a call awaits,
Elizabeth's dilemma in finding a place worthy of her in the structured society of her time,
Meg's adolescent anger, pierced only by her love for her brother.

Is this 'telling story' and talking about 'the central conflict'?

Is this Luke shooting at Empire troopers or Elizabeth sassing Darcy or Meg facing the ultimate cerebral evil?

The characters are facing, not plot action that will come later, but the central conflict of the story which arrives right at the beginning.

So, we do not write Chapter One to set the scene or introduce characters or catch the readers' attention or provide background information -- though it may coincidentally do all these things.
We hit the ground running.
We tell the story right from the first words.

. . . .and yes, as you have been musing to yourself all this time, that picture is an Albert's squirrel bringing home nesting material.  The nest of an Albert's squirrel, high in a Ponderosa (why is that capaitalized?) pine tree, looks like  a large messy bird's nest.  It is made of pine duff, (not to be confused with raisin duff,) and is -- the government tells me this -- warm and snuggly.  
The analogy between this and my blog will be obvious . . .


  1. 'Plot' is the set of carefully orchestrated incidents that tells story.

    Probably the clearest definition of plot that I've ever run across.

  2. "We tries to be concise," Jo said modestly. *g*