Plots, Plot Twists, and Subplots

Or as one might say… that’s a lot of plots.  From a couple questions I got back, I’m not sure that I broke things down well enough on my earlier discussion of plots, The Conniving Plotters.  So I thought I’d clear things up and set some ground definitions regarding story elements.

The plot, sometimes called the narrative, is the sequence of events or character interactions that makes up a story.  To put it simply, the ‘stuff’ that happens to characters and the ‘stuff’ characters do in return.  Plot and Characterization together make the story.  Unless you have a large readership that likes navel-gazing, you have to have some kind of plot, or sequence of events and scenes.  The other part of this, of course, is that you typically want a coherent plot.  The sequence of events has to make sense, most times, and this is called building a narrative.  To build a narrative, the plot elements all work towards an overall goal and build the story into a cohesive whole.  Often there is mention of plot structure, which often takes the form of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.  To break it down, Exposition is the introduction, this establishes what characters are involved and the circumstances.  Rising action establishes the problem and the consequences, this could be as simple as a disagreement between two characters or as complex as the potential destruction of the world.  Climax involves the turning point, where the characters decisions or actions change the course of the story or event.  Falling action is the immediate aftereffects of the climax.  Lastly, Resolution is the consequences and the story or event concludes.  Many writers build the overall plot around this form, while other writers build every scene to this pattern.  There are exceptions to this rule, such as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the point was that the universe and plot didn’t make a whole lot of sense (although one could argue in that series that the plot as a whole was built very well and it was just difficult to see from the begining) .  Most books, generally, have a plot which can be summed up in either a sentence or at least a few lines.  Sometimes the plot can be very complex, which leads me to the next topic.

Plot twists are events that change the course of the plot.  This is often in the form of a sudden and radical shift in the story that changes the reader’s expectations.  Examples of plot twists are common in books and movies.  Often a sudden revelation or unexpected event can heighten the experience for a reader.  Plot twists are an essential element of storytelling.  Some books and movies use plot twists to increase the suspense.  In others, plot twists are meant to provide humor or to cause another emotional reaction.  Plot twists can be overdone, however.  At a certain point, a reader may become burned out, after having their expectations shattered again and again and simply cease to care.  Another hazard with a plot twist is to fail to foreshadow.  When a reader feels that a plot twist came out of nowhere, they can be frustrated with the results.  Foreshadowing, or laying some other groundwork and hints for a reader, is one way to cushion the fall when a plot twist jerks the rug out from under them.  An example of a plot twist is when the magic artifact turns out to be a dud or the main character finds out his nemesis is actually his father.

Subplots are often non-essential to the main plot, but involve secondary characters or even main character’s goals and stories within the main story.  A subplot often serves the purposes of building characterization and character development.  Subplots also are methods in which an overall story among a series is built.  This is a way to tell additional stories within the main story itself.  Examples of a subplot is the romance between two secondary characters or a search for the long lost family member.

These are all things that help to build a story.  They’re tools to a writer.  If you want to succeed as a writer, understanding plot, plot twists, and subplots will go a long way.


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