I instructed a first grade art class to draw the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, hoping to encourage lots of action pictures from the kids. Nearly every child began to draw portraits of the bears and their uninvited house guest. Getting the kids to understand that they were missing the action of the story took a lot of explanation and examples. Their picture books missed the plot.
It just isn’t a story if nothing happens. As writers, we face the same dilemma. Describe everything you like. Hell, describe everything you hate. Use all those big words from the SAT list and all the interesting ones from A.Word.A.Day (thank you, Anu Garg – you are brilliant) to show all manner of items in your imaginary world. Be poetic, outlandish, edgy, surprising, harsh, dramatic, even melodramatic in those descriptions. But they aren’t enough. Something has to happen if it’s going to be a story. You have to paint more than portraits of your bears.
Story is plot, an ongoing sequence of events, whether a thrilling adventure or a series of subtle twists that impacts the main character. You have to make something happen and it’s better if lots of stuff happens. Sounds like writing practice for six-year-olds yet I’ve read any number of adult-writen WIP that tell excellent descriptions of all kinds of things but still have no plot. Nothing is happening. No one wants anything. Threats are absent. No one needs rescue. Nobody takes risks, goes anyplace dangerous, does something stupid, sets off a chain of perilous events, internally transforms because of life incidents. The bad guy makes a visual appearance, another description, but doesn’t interact with the main character. There are no stakes that anyone must overcome in order to stay alive.
Someone asks, “What’s your plot?” I reply, “It’s the story of Slick’s life.” I produce Slick’s diary, my own in slim disguise, because I’m certain all the things I’ve lived through are interesting enough to write a story about. I’m talking an adult here, a grownup proficient with a computer, journaling every morning, writing on a daily basis but not creating story. “First Slick (the disguised me) went here, and then he went there.” However busy I may be getting here and there, my daily activities do not comprise a story. There is no plot to my life as I function day to day. No plot, no story, no matter how invested I may be in my life.
Think of it this way: Slick, our protagonist, is an endearing character who wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship but is frankly too darned lazy to attain any skill. He dreams winning but does nothing to get to the podium. Sounds just like me. I have big dreams and the only thing getting in the way of achieving them is that I don’t go after my dreams in any active way. The story of my life, of Slick’s life, is not a story that anyone wants to read. It’s life minus plot.
To amp up our story we now we have Slick practicing sidewalk sliding on a regular basis, improving his skill at each workout. What seemed like a long shot now appears to be a possible winning outcome. Along comes Knuckle, our antagonist, also yearning to win the sidewalk sliding trophy, and Knuckle is of course, bigger and faster. Aha, a competition. Still not a plot, but getting closer.
Knuckle concocts a method of breaking the sidewalk sections, creating an unslidable surface. Slick crashes and ends up with one short leg. Finally, enter the plot. We leave the boring realm of ordinary diary life and approach that of a fantastical, adventurous story, one that everyone in the world wants to read about. Slick, our potential hero, the nice kid with one short leg, wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship as does Knuckle, a born athlete but also a cheater.
Slick misses the bus to the competition because Knuckle got on first, (remember, Slick has a short leg) took the last seat, and locked the door. As Slick rushes to hitch a ride on the bus bumper, Knuckle tosses jelly beans out the window, making Slick fall on his personal bumper. Slick could eat the jelly beans and solve that problem but he’s deathly allergic to them. One bite of one bean and his legs, his all important and clever but uneven legs, his essential element of competition, will swell to watermelon size and become too mushy for him to stand, even lopsidedly, forget sliding. At every turn, Slick is halted in his objective as Knuckle’s subterfuges become increasingly more dangerous and difficult to overcome.
The story is no longer about me, because I don’t have Slick’s problems or nemesis, but it has become a story because there is now a plot. Problems must be resolved in a limited amount of time (the competition is tomorrow) with lots of crises thrown in front of Slick, making it unlikely he’ll succeed in bringing home the trophy. Until he finally does, against all odds and by his own clever prowess. Slick outwits Knuckle, competes fairly and wins, still with one leg too short, finally dumping Knuckle into the trash bin where old sidewalk sections go when they are too crumpled to slide on. The story no longer has any resemblance to my boring diary but no one wanted to read that anyway.
Plot, progressive actions, is only one part of story but it’s a critical part. It may evolve from a page of your diary, a chapter of history, or your crazy dreams, but it has to be an ongoing construction that forces your main character into confronting risk and taking action. Now let’s draw Papa Bear as he enters his house and slips on the rungs of his broken chair, strewn about the floor. Aha, the plot thickens.