Tag Archives: plot

Exposure vs Escapism: What Questions Should Your Reader Ask?

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The Point of Plot

A key polarity in the history of storytelling, certainly in the modern, ‘bourgeois’ era, is between what we might call ‘realism’ and ‘romance’ – the desire, on the one hand, to expose reality, and the desire to escape it.   ~ Middlesex University MA Novel Writing course notes

The thing is, a story can easily do both. The SF&F genre in particular is skilled at doing this. It’s like going on holiday. You go away somewhere exotic, removed from your normal routine, you see new things and experience new things, and you bring back souvenirs. Brian DeLeonard wrote a great blog post about that this week, including the important point that fantasy ‘helps storytellers to highlight one of the most difficult to find emotions in our everyday lives’ – wonder.

Stories can provide escapism whilst looking at ideas in a new light – perhaps even a light which removes the fog of emotion or controversy (oh, hai, religion). The writer can quietly pose questions to the reader through the medium of escapist storytelling, but the reader’s thoughts on the subject will come back with them to real life. It isn’t a question of ‘either/or’. You don’t have to do both, but you totally can. If you do, though, you need to plan your plot accordingly.

Plotting Questions

A plot is a history of consequence.   ~ Aristotle

When it comes to planning your plot progression (mini-fist pump for alliteration), a lot of it comes down to questions. These can be separated into three types:

  1. THEMATIC: the big question your story is addressing (if you have one). In my case, for Corpus, it was what’s the difference between religion and faith, and how far will someone go for the sake of each?
  2. FUNDAMENTALS: things you should have an answer for before even setting pen to page. Who is your protagonist (where ‘who’ encompasses culture, background, time period, etc.), who is your antagonist, what’s the end goal, what’s the inciting incident, and what problems will get in the way?
  3. MICE QUOTIENT: questions specific to your plot. Who killed Roger Rabbit, and why? How can the alien mothership be destroyed?

But, except on the very first page when the reader is first getting acquainted with the type of book they’ve picked up, you don’t want them to be consciously asking these questions. If a reader has to stop and say ‘what’s going on?’ or ‘how is the character going to cope with this?’ then they’ve dropped out of immersion to think about what they’re reading, and you’ve lost them. The role of the writer – the point of plotting – is to pre-empt the questions and drive the story at a pace which doesn’t give the reader time to stop and think about what should come next.

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London Under: The Aftermath

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Blind Justice, photo by Tom Garnett, http://www.tgarnett.com

Three weeks ago I – with a group of glamorous assistants – ran the second London Under event, in an ‘urban decay chic’ hall tucked in an alley behind Angel Tube Station. As promised, here are the lessons learned and (in business speak) key take-aways from trying to tell a story with 50-odd protagonists (some more odd than others), where the characters are not under my control and the best I can do is roll with the curveballs.

1) You can’t tell one story with 50 protagonists.

I’m not sure that works in any medium. Each of them has their own drives, fears, objectives. I deliberately wrote eight main plotlines, and there were a dozen more minor ones tucked in along with whatever the characters developed for themselves. Which means chaos, to a greater or lesser extent.

This is pretty standard for LARP events. The applicable lesson for writing is that every character – whether your protagonist, or 3rd Soldier From The Left – has individual desires and agendas. What the hero does will impact in some way on 3rd Soldier, so why shouldn’t what 3rd Soldier does impact on the hero? The hero may be chasing down some dooming piece of apocalyptically evil jewellery; 3rd Soldier may be looting a farmstead for food because he’s starving, or money because he’s a thief. If they come into the same immediate environment, what will each action mean for the other?

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #1: Everyone’s a hero in their own story. What happens when these stories intersect?

2) When transferring this theory to the page, don’t get too carried away.

I struggled to keep all the plot lines for London Under straight in my head, and I wrote them. Pity the poor reader (or, in the case of London Under, the poor assistant ref) who is trying to catch/keep up! This is, to be honest, pretty much the exact reason I stopped reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Yes, have plots and sub-plots, but keep it down to a reasonable number. If you reach a point in your manuscript where your characters need to stop and plot-dump, just to get everything clear, you may have overcomplicated things.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #2: No plot dumping! Keep It Simpler, Stupid.

3) Planning the flow of knowledge is important.

If your protagonist(s) need to know a certain piece of information in order to tackle the problem, you need a feasible reason why they would know that, or a believable and non-deus-ex delivery mechanism for the information. In game, NPCs (Non Player Characters) can do this, although it’s better if they don’t have to as it takes an element of agency away from the Player Characters.

On the page, having a handy librarian gnome turn up with the right book of prophecy, or your trusty sidekick suddenly develop an impressively detailed knowledge of royal lineage / magical blacksmithing / plastic surgery is a bit… well, rubbish. For the same reasons – it removes power from the protagonist and invalidates both the characters and the storytelling credentials. This is very similar to the Chekhov’s Gun principle – if you know you’re going to need it, introduce it early and naturally.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #3: Organic information is better for you.

4) Running a LARP event is hard.

Running a game with 50 inter-connected protagonists working on 12+ stories is not entirely unlike watching a firework display whilst spinning on a merry-go-round. There’s lots of beautiful colours and unexpected explosions, and then you get dizzy and fall over. It’s exhilarating and exhausting.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #4: Don’t do that again.

And finally…

I owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who helped bring London Under to life. I hope it will live on in the pages of my next book, and I hope I’ll do it justice there. For a sneak preview, here’s how it will start:

It began with death.

Or at an intimate dinner in luxurious surroundings, where certain suspicions were confirmed and a course of action decided upon.

Or it began on a foggy February morning in Hyde Park, with sunlight gilding the cobwebs and the dawn chorus easing down from their finale. A boy and a girl – though they would not refer to themselves in such terms – met by a young oak tree and reached for each other’s skin. It was not the first time, but it was the surest.

Love is at the root of all stories. Let’s say it began with love.