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The Evolution of Plotting

What’s the most exciting story you can remember? A novel, movie, or show that had you completely caught up, holding your breath, and gripping the arm of your couch? A mystery with a tense climax—and then a stunning plot twist in which you learn the good and bad guys are not at all who you thought they were?

Plots make stories engaging. Almost all fiction uses plotting. Literature courses may teach us that Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury don’t have plots, which is a bit of an exaggeration but they do exemplify novels that rely more on character development, setting and/or writing style then active plotting. However, almost all great stories are plot-driven.

I like to identify with a protagonist who is thrown into the deep end and must scramble to save themself, their loved ones, or even life as we know it. O maybe they have to solve a mystery, find a treasure, escape from a crash landing in a remote jungle or on an inhospitable planet, or, heck, return a magical ring to the lava pit beneath a mountain of doom in order to destroy it before implacable evil conquers Middle Earth (if that sounds familiar then you’ve read Tolkien of course.)

Phew! I’m out of breath just from this quick sampler of great plots!

In middle and high school we teach the plot arc, which looks like a graph of a gradually building wave rising to a peak or climax, then falling to the sand as the story resolves. It starts on the level with an exposition, which introduces characters, setting, and mood. Then a conflict (like a sandbar beneath the surface of the shore) thrusts the wave skyward and puts the plot and characters in dynamic motion. Action rises as the plot rises to a crest and sets up the plot’s climax.

These are graphs drawn by English teachers, so it should be no surprise that the axes are not scientifically labeled. A few doors down from the ELA classroom, a math or science instructor would probably label the horizontal or X-axis Time and the vertical or Y-axis Emotional Tension. I think these plot drawings are actually graphs and not so much the protagonist’s journey as the reader’s. We are drawn in, becoming more and more engaged, until emotions climax and the plot finally resolves, releasing us cathartically on the sandy beach and allowing our emotions to ebb back to normal.

The curving line on the plot graph is represented by a classic Greek formula for catharsis after emotional stress. As we get caught up in the plight of the protagonist, we feel like we are cresting an emotional wave along with them.

About two-thirds of the way into the journey, things are supposed to come to a peak and we are set up for the climax of our classic plot arc. The amateur sleuth discovers that their confidant and mentor is actually the murderer who’s been playing them for the fool all along, for instance. Now what?

In my Silent Lee stories, I follow this plot arc more or less (the ‘less’ I’ll explain soon!). In book one, there is a tense standoff on the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library (with its famous Italian marble), where Silent and Raahi are overtaken by agents from the CIA (which turns out to be not the agency they thought, but a more secretive one called Central Investigation if Anomalies). Silent must work some serious magic to prevent these federal magic-hunters from capturing them and seizing her very special key.

After the climax, tension falls as the plot resolves. We breathe a cathartic sigh of relief and can finally put the book down. It’s a well-proven formula for enjoyment, first formalized by Socrates but no doubt used by fireside storytellers right back to the beginnings of humanity.

Why do we get so emotionally entangled in made-up stories? Is this an immature, primitive thing we should evolve beyond? I don’t think so. I think it’s a way to practice the very abilities that make us human: Empathy. Connection. Imagination. Care. Concern. Rooting for someone other than oneself. Rejoicing in the successes of others. Not to mention ethics and morals; wanting things to be set right as order and harmony are restored.

Of course, a good plot also exercises our so-called animal reactions: the fight, flight, or freeze response and the physical tension that danger and suspense creates. But even as we’re reacting viscerally, we’re also reacting cognitively. We’re processing clues and following the plot to anticipate what will happen next. And we’re constantly honing our language skills in order to understand the characters and their story. A good plot sweeps the whole of us up, integrating and exercising many layers of response.

It’s fun to read with children because storylines are novel to them and they get swept up so easily! But soon they too have experienced numerous plots and are ready for more advanced twists and turns. When I write for middle or high schoolers, I find I’m using more complex and zigzaggy plots than those of books from decades past. Things start happening quickly and the plot climbs a series of choppy peaks instead of just one gradual upsweep to a single climax.

A Nancy Drew mystery seems plodding and slow in many places and it leans too heavily on coincidences and improbabilities for modern taste. We are sophisticated plot consumers now, largely because of the volume of stories we’ve already enjoyed. Between books, shows, movies, games and I don’t even know what else, kids today are familiar with many thousands of plots. We are too.

That classical wave of a story arc is not really enough to draw us in and keep us engaged. The slow exposition and gradual, linear build just doesn’t do the trick like they used to. Now we see many more plot elements: Teaser climaxes that, rather than resolving everything, lead to heightened adventure. Surprise twists and turns, not only at the ending but scattered throughout. Side plots with their own excitements may collide with the main plot and change its course and/or reveal something unexpected about the characters.

The linear progression of the story through time is no longer taken for granted either. The in-media res technique literally means ‘in the middle of things’. We are thrust right away into some dramatic mid-point adventure and only given the back story later. It’s becoming more common too.

And that orderly exposition—the gentle introduction of place, character, mood—is a thing of the past. “The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes, that have passed within.” This start to the second paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is not paced for modern life. It may be great writing, but nothing happens in it.

Dan Brown is a best-selling modern author whose books become successful movies too. Check out one of his first lines: “Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” That’s how The Davinci Code starts—with a tiny bit of setting (vaulted archway, grand gallery) but also with a character in motion and an immediate introduction of suspense. Why would a stodgy old curator be staggering? This is a much more obvious foreshadowing of troubles ahead than the vague uneasiness conveyed by an old house with weathered gables on its roof.

Dan Brown, having found a successful opening-sentence formula, repeats it with gusto in his next book, Angels and Demons: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” See what I mean? Straight into the deep end.

Purists may lament a decline in the quality of literature, but we should not forget that many of the classics of our literary canon were best sellers in their day—and were disparaged as modern and a decline from the great dramatists of yore, whether Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks. We don’t let on to our high school students that Shakespeare filled his plays with bawdy jokes, sometimes even putting them in the titles of plays! (What precisely do you think Much Ado About ‘Nothing’ is actually about…?)

Writers have always sought to engage their audiences. It’s just that audiences evolve and so do writers and their plots.

I draft middle-grade fiction with the help of my kids. I happen to be a perennial dad, never without another child coming up, it seems. My youngest of five, now nearly thirteen, is squarely in my middle-grade market. My almost eighteen-year-old is an experienced editor of my work, and sometimes coauthors it.

And guess what? They constantly cross out my descriptions and tell me to get on with the plot! If Nathaniel Hawthorne were to come back and test his material on them, I think his openings, for better or worse, would get to be a lot more like Dan Brown’s.

Alex Hiam, the author of Silent Lee and the Side Door Key, teaches creative writing and writes fantasy adventure stories for teens and tweens from his home in the Brattleboro area of Vermont. Available through your local bookstore or Amazon.

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