Musings

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Three – Plot

For the third part in my four part series on literary basics, I’d like to discuss something I consider to be one of the biggest areas for misunderstandings. Although characters are what drive my own work and reading, plot is just as important as character to a story. Therefore it’s important for everyone to understand what plot encompasses.

The basic definition of Plot is it is the actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. Easy enough to understand and most stories follow the classic three-act structure. The beginning is sometimes referred to as the exposition and on average comprises about 15% of the story. Setting, conflict, and the main character are introduced here. Next comes the middle which, not surprisingly, makes up a bulk of a story. Through chapters we get rising action as our main character climbs toward the apex of the story. Then our main character spends a few chapters in falling action working toward the ending. Finally, we have the ending, which like the beginning, usually makes up a small percentage of the overall story. While there are plenty of examples of novels experimenting with beginning, middle, and end, the very definition of plot cannot be confusing. However, it’s when we start digging more into plot and its elements that confusion starts.

Let’s start off easy with what a subplot is. A subplot is a mini-story contained within the main plot. A subplot or subplots may or may not involve the protagonist but should be something that somehow serves the overall plot in addition to aiding in character development.

Next, let’s talk about what a plot device is. A plot device is an object or even a person which propels the protagonist, antagonist, or both forward in the plot. This is a rather vague definition so one way to think of it is to give an example.  For example, the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings books is what Frodo believes his ultimate goal to be.

The category of plot device is surprisingly denser then one would believe. For example, a type of plot device is something known as a MacGuffin. A term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, it refers to an object whose pursuit isn’t actually essential to the story. For example, when reading a spy novel, the essential papers which could prove who the mole is seem the most important when in reality it in the search for those papers that’s important. The object itself isn’t the point of the story and it’s the chase that is truly the plot.

Deus ex machina is another plot device and one that greatly irks many readers. More commonly referred to as the Hand of God, it is a concept dating back to ancient Greece when an actor would be lowered by a crane onto to the stage as a God to magically resolve and end the story. Even back then audiences were bothered as it comes across as the author realizing he or she has painted himself or herself into a corner and couldn’t come up with a better resolution. What to do? Poof! Magically swoop in and just make everything better.

Finally, another kind of plot device is the red herring. Mostly used in mysteries and thrillers, it is a way to throw the main character (and reader) off the trail of the real killer or evil plot. Usually the red herring is a person but can also be an object.

There are many other kinds of plot devices but these are a few of the most common types.

Now we get to the one term which makes me cringe when I hear it and that is plot hole. A plot hole is a logical inconsistency within the context of the world of the story. This can include statements and actions which contradict stated facts and that have not been developed to make the current situation plausible. It can also refer to actions and events never hinted at but by using deus ex machina everything is right with the world.

Why this makes me cringe is often times when I hear it mentioned is by people who use it as a means to explain their personal dislike of a character’s action or outcome of the story. Apparently not liking something is the equivalent to a plot hole. Even when whatever it is explained by actions and dialogue earlier in the story, somehow it must still be a plot hole because “I said so and don’t accept your attempt at discounting my opinion with facts.”

Sometimes this term is used when a person doesn’t understand something. It’s okay to not understand everything which happens in a story. It’s hard to catch it all and one of the nice things about literature is through reasonable discussion with others or re-reading, our understanding becomes clearer. That being said, it is not a plot hole if as a reader you don’t understand. It’s highly possible the author didn’t make something clear. But again, it’s not necessarily a plot hole.

 

As you can see within the world of plot it is quite robust. However, once the terms are known and understood we all become better readers and writers. As with the other literary elements I’ve already discussed, without a firm grasp on plot one cannot fully enjoy the story the author has written for us.

Musings

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part Two – Setting

A couple of weeks ago I started a series reviewing story basics. I started with Character and continue the series this week with Setting. Unlike some of the other story elements, setting is pretty straightforward. A lot easier to keep straight and not confuse terms.

The simplest definition of setting is it is where the story takes place. As we all know, it can be a real place or something fantastical or even a place within a character’s mind. In addition to be the world, setting also helps the reader fix the time, culture, and mood of the world in which the story takes place.

Below are definitions of a few different kinds of settings frequently seen in literature:

Alternate History – This might seem confusing since alternate history is also a subgenre of both science fiction and historical fiction. In this context, alternate history is a setting because it is a world set in a different universe from what our normal history is. This could also be defined as Alternate Universe or Parallel Universe.

Imaginary World – This type of setting is one in which the author has created a world from scratch including its own set of rules, logic, culture, and religion. This is mostly found in science fiction and fantasy. Many authors who have created their own worlds, such as Middle Earth and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, have based them on the real world.

Dystopia – Stories set in this kind of setting feature societies which have completed broken down. Everything is usually bleak and depressing. This is quite popular with examples such as the various districts within The Hunger Games trilogy. While commonly associated with science fiction, literary fiction frequently employs this setting as well.

Mythical Place – As the name suggests, the setting is some mythical time and place found in mythology, folklore, or religious texts. This is different from an Imaginary World in that this setting would be something like Asgard or Camelot or the Garden of Eden.

Utopia – This is the opposite of Dystopia in that instead of a broken down society, society is based upon the principle of equality in all things. People frequently believe that a utopian world means that everyone is happy and everything is perfect. This isn’t necessarily the case as seen A Brave New World and 1984.

 

These are just a few of the different kinds of settings. All of us have read books set in real places with real people yet fictionalized for the sake of the story. And we’ve all read books set in a fictional place set here on Earth but which perhaps takes place during our modern time or a point in history.

While setting is one of the simplest literary elements, it’s easy to see where readers could start to get confused. When connecting it with Character, for example, I frequently see and hear people criticize a character’s actions because the story is set in a time period and culture different from own. I’ve seen this more with new historical fiction readers, but all genres are affected.  I believe this comes down to readers not remembering the context of the world. Characters within the story’s world who behave as good or bad suddenly are deemed the opposite because the reader projects modern values and their own biases.

Setting, while unassuming and operating seemingly in the shadows, should be on equal footing as other literary elements. Without a firm grasp on setting, an author cannot fully convey to the reader what it is he or she wants the reader to not only visualize, but also how Character and Plot are affected by it. The inverse is true for the reader. Without a firm understanding of the setting, all the other literary elements cannot work as well as the author intended. By better understanding its purpose both readers and authors become better.

Musings

Weekly Musing: The Basics Part One – Character

Over the last few years I’ve noticed people seem to have forgotten what the basic elements of a story are. I’ve also noticed certain terms misused by both avid book readers and fans of TV and movies during discussions. At first I dismissed this as people getting terms mixed up in the heat of the moment during a debate. But the more I hear this confusion, the more I pondering maybe it’s not a simple brain fart. Over the next few weeks I’ll be going over the basic literary elements in an effort to help people keep things straight.

First, let’s start with what makes up a story. We’ve got characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Most of these elements have many components to them which is where I think people get confused and mix up terms. Keep in mind that any information I’m presenting is quite basic and doesn’t apply 100% to every story. Many books exist which don’t follow these “rules” exactly which is what makes it’s fun for the reader.

Let’s start with one of my favorite parts of a story and what I personally start with and that is Character.

Each story has at least one character known as the protagonist. Most of the time it is a human but can be an animal or even an inanimate object. Most people associate the term protagonist as the main character is good. This is regardless of genre and for the most part, stories do revolve around what we would consider a good person.

Many stories have one protagonist whom the story revolves around. However, it’s important to keep in mind not all stories have only one protagonist. Other characters can be used and some novels exist where it’s hard to define who the protagonist is. Usually this happens in an epic series, such as A Song of Ice and Fire, but can happen within a standalone novel. Family sagas are another example where there may be multiple protagonists.

The opposite of the protagonist is the antagonist. Usually this character is thought of as the bad guy or girl as they are trying to prevent the protagonist from achieving something. Again, the antagonist doesn’t have to be human as it could be nature, an animal, or even the protagonist if the story is the character’s internal struggle. Just as it is possible for a story to have multiple protagonists, it’s possible to have multiple antagonists. Perhaps the lead character is facing several adversaries on his or her journey. Or if the story has multiple main characters, each will more than likely have their own antagonist.

One thing I’d like for more people to realize is that although terms like protagonist and antagonist set up a good vs. evil connotation, this isn’t always the case. What it means is we have a main character who has an adversary of some kind. Stories exist in which the protagonist is evil and their opponent is good. These are rare, but they are out there.

Next we move into minor characters. Simply put, a minor character serves to help advance the story along in some way. A majority of stories have at least one minor character. Either minor characters can play a small, ancillary role, such as the briefly seen parents of a protagonist, or they can play a significant role such as a sidekick, advisor, comic relief, eventually dead best friend, etc.

A very important component for a character’s story is determining what point of view in which to tell their story. Most stories use first person or some form of third person whether it’s limited (strictly from one and only one character’s point of view but not using words like “I” or “me”) or omniscient (telling the story via more than one character). Very rarely is second point of view used in which the narrator uses “you” as a way to distance himself or herself from the story.

Generally a story is told from the protagonist’s point of view whether that be first person or third person. However, like everything else in literature, there are exceptions. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrator is Chief yet the main character is Randle Patrick McMurphy. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the main character and the story is told through third person limited. More complicated novels will frequently employee multiple points of views in order for the reader to see the big picture.

 

Although these are some of the basics that go into the character element, it’s easy to see how quickly an author can complicate things. Even turning one of these components on its head can vastly change the complexion of a story before factoring in the other pieces such as setting, the plot, conflict, and resolution.