In this section, you’ll discover the importance of plot, you’ll be introduced to the Plot Triangle and you’ll find out why plot is important when editing. Once complete, you’ll be able to define the plot of any novel and make assessment of which plot elements should be included and which should be left out.
So What About Plot?
It is not uncommon for readers, and writers, to get story and plot mixed up. However, there is an important difference. Story is the overriding situation in which the book is set (e.g. Harry Potter trains to be a wizard at Hogwarts), whilst plot is the events that occur within that story.
A more precise definition would be:
Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design.
It is easy to see how, from an editor’s viewpoint, a deep understanding of a novel’s story and plot allow for effective editing.
The important thing to remember is that the story aspect and the plot aspect of a novel can act as separate entities. It would possible to define a story and then apply one of many different plots. The same works the other way around. In theory, you could apply many different stories to a single plot idea. They are, to an extent, interchangeable.
As an editor, you must be able to see past the words on the page and understand the individual plot elements, the wider plot and the overall story. Only once you have this deep understanding can you start to see when one of these elements is wrong and how it can be corrected.
A Bit About Plot Design
Plot design is a complex and vast topic. Many books have been written on this subject and it is something that a writer (or editor) can spend a lifetime seeking to master. However, from an editorial viewpoint it is only important that you are aware of the key plot types and how these relate to a novel.
As with themes, though there are a plethora of possible plots, there are a number of common plots that have proven, over time, to be the best way to tell a story. As an editor you need to be aware of these plots and their basic elements.
The great writing teacher, Robert Mckee, teaches a method he calls the Plot Triangle. It is this method that we will use when looking to self-edit. If you wish to know more about Mckee’s work I suggest you invest in a copy of Story, by Robert Mckee.
The Plot Triangle
Figure 1 is a representation of McKee’s Plot Triangle. It is split into three distinct types of plot, one at each corner of the triangle:
- Classical Design (top).
- Minimalist (left).
- Anti-structure (right).
Classical Design is the oldest possible story format and is still, by far, the most common. If you read a successful book or watch a film, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be based around Classical Design. In this plot formation we see a protagonist (main character), who struggles against an external force to pursue their desire. The end of the story sees a resolution with a significant change occurring to the protagonist.
In the left hand corner, we find Minimalist. The best way to think about this is that it is Classical Design but stripped down to its very barebones. Readers will often suggest that minimalist novels actually lack a plot, but this is not strictly true. Most novels that class themselves as ‘experimental’ actually tend to be variations on the Classical Design and fall into this category.
In the right-hand corner of the Plot Triangle, you’ll discover Anti-Structure. This plot format is often seen as a rebellion to Classical Design. It will refuse to follow traditional elements and will appear truly experimental. In reality, true anti-structure novels are very rare.
The Plot Triangle is a great starting point when looking to define a plot. ALL stories written will fall into this triangle at some point. When editing a novel it is very useful to discover where the writer has positioned a book. It will give the editor an expectation to the plot formation and provide you with the ability to suggest plot changes that will benefit the over novel.
The thing to remember, when editing someone else’s novel, is that there is a good chance that the writer will not have an understanding of the Plot Triangle. This means that the editor’s job becomes one of discovery as they determine where the novel fits.
We now turn our attention to the plot elements that go into making up each wider structure.
If you return to Figure 1, you’ll see that within the Plot Triangle are a number of plot elements. These are the elements that go to make up the wider plot. It is important to realise that each plot element exists apart from any plot structure and that in theory the plot elements are interchangeable, with many plot elements cropping up in any structure. However, in practice certain elements tend to be critical to certain structures. For example, a Closed Ending is a key element of Classical Design.
As an editor, one of your roles will be to ensure that the plot elements used are suitable for the wider plot structure.
This is an ending in which all of the questions raised in the plot are answered. It produces an emotionally satisfying ending to a novel. The Classical Design uses a closed ending.
An open ending is one in which the writer leaves narrative questions open and unanswered. This can leave the reader will less emotional closure but can be a powerful narrative tool. You most often see open endings in Minimalist novels.
The emphasis is on conflict with external sources. Though internal conflict may also be an aspect, the focus will be on conflict with relationships, social institutions and/or the physical world. This element is most often seen in Classical Design novels.
The emphasis is on conflict with internal sources. It may be the case that external conflict plays an important role in the plot but the main focus will be on the character’s own internal conflict. This is seen most often in Minimalist works.
The protagonist is the subject of the novel. In the single protagonist element, the novel will focus on a single individual. This is a very common element of Classical Design.
In this element we see the plot focused on multiple characters, rather than a single protagonist. This is an approach that has grown in popularity over the last twenty years in certain genres (e.g. fantasy and thriller). It is also often a common feature of Minimalist novels, though often seen in Classical Design.
The active protagonist is one that wilfully seeks to control their destiny. They will tend to seek to resolve a situation through conflict until a climax is reached. This is an essential element of Classical Design.
This is often a side effect of internal conflict and commonly seen in Minalaimist novels. Rather than the protagonist seeking to actively control their destiny, they tend to be passive, reacting to events rather than seeking resolution.
Classical Design novels see a linear time line where the character moves from point-to-point in time as the story progresses. Chapter 1 will start at a set point in time and the final chapter will be ‘later’ from this point.
In this element, time is confused and jumbled. The plot will jump forwards and backward in time. It is often the case that topics such as ‘time’ or ‘memory’ are key themes. This element is often found in Anti-Structure novels.
This is seen most often in Classical Design. Causality is simply the emphasis on one event producing the subsequent event. This can be summed up in the phrase, ‘this happens, therefore that happens.’ It is the rule of cause and effect.
This element is opposite to causality. Its focus is on the randomness of events. The plot will focus on coincidence rather than a set chain of events. This is an element often found in Anti-Structure novels.
In novels written using this element (often Classical Design), we see a reality that is consistent and predictable. The rules of physics tend to apply and the reader is not presented with surprises. Even in worlds alien to the reader, there is a consistent predictable reality, even if different from that of everyday life.
Using Plot Elements Like An Editor
Having now seen the outline for plot and plot elements we turn our attention on how this is applied to the editing process. When self-editing your own work, the focus should be on two things. The first is identifying the plot type and the second is understanding the elements that are being used within the novel.
If the novel is of Classical Design then you would expect to see some or all of the following elements:
- Closed Ending.
- Linear Time.
- External Conflict.
- Single Protagonist.
If your novel is Minimalist, you’d expect to see some or all of the following elements:
- Open Ending.
- Internal Conflict.
- Passive Protagonist.
- Nonlinear Time.
- Inconsistent Realities.
Well, no. It is possible to see elements from one novel type (say Classical Design) in another (say Anti-Structure). However, it is important that this is an active choice by you the writer, not an accident of design. I really can’t drill this point home enough. If you are not fully aware of the plot structure you are applying and you are intentionally ‘messing’ with the conventions, then stick to the expected structure.
You will find that readers have an unconscious understanding of what elements they are expecting to come up in the story they are reading. This is a result of a kind of collective knowledge from years of reading. If you then change these elements or provide an unexpected plot element, if will potentially confuse and frustrate the reader. However, they will often have no understanding what is wrong but they will know something’s not right.
In short, unless you are setting out to write an intentionally experimental novel, then stick to the conventions.
The same goes for editing. Unless you are working with a writer that has set out to write an experimental novel, your job is to spot plot elements that don’t fit. Once you’ve found these you need to explain to the writer why they are wrong and what is the best solution moving forward.
Let’s say you wanted to write a Classical Design novel but decided to have Multiple Protagonists. To be honest, that’s not an issue and something we see often in modern literature. Multiple Protagonists is a plot element that is seen in all three types of plot. Therefore, as an editor you would not be flagging this up as a potential problem. However, if in the same Classical Design novel you, as the writer, decide to use a Nonlinear Time then you might be in trouble. It would be the editor’s role to assess the impact of the plot element and feedback possible issues to the writer. Your job as an editor to to make sure the writer is using the best elements of their book.
The best place to start (when writing and editing) is with the Plot Triangle since this will give you a great outline for the types of elements that are most commonly found in different plot structures. If you discover that you (the writer) are using elements that don’t match the triangle, then it is time to put on your editor’s hat and see if there’s a problem and it there is how can it be fixed.
The long and short is that if you stick to the triangle you’ll create better, more readable novels. Yes, you might want to break these rules but if you are going to experiment make sure it is a wilful process.
Why Does Plot Matter?
Writers tend to be aware of the need for plot, but many have not really considered it in any real depth. Editors often work with writers that are unaware of wider plot structure and are writing from instinct.
Before we delve into this, let’s just pause a moment to consider what type of writer you are. There are two types of writers – outliners and discovery writers.
An outliner will start each novel with some level of planning. This will vary from a simple start, middle and end to a massive, detailed plot structure with each plot already mapped out. The main advantage of this approach is that the novel will tend to have a more robust structure and will, as a rule, to be ‘easier’ to read. The downside is that characters can come across as one dimensional and underdeveloped.
A discovery writer will often start writing with no real understanding of where the story will be going and they will let the characters ‘tell the story’ progressing from scene-to-scene as they see fit. The big up side to this type of writing is that it produces fully formed characters. The negative is that stories tend to be character driven and can quickly become bloated and even boring.
The reality is that successful writers tend to have one foot in each camp.
Ok, back to self-editing…
A phrase that strikes terror into the heart of editors is that the writer has ‘allowed the characters tell the story’. This is often shorthand of a novel with no overriding plot. If the writer has not mapped out a start, middle and end before embarking on the writing process the novel will almost always lack cohesion. In these cases, the writer is often unintentionally creating a Coincidental plot, where events seem to occur at random and have no interrelation to previous events (this-happens-then-this-happens, rather than this-happens-therefore-this-happens). This is OK if you are not writing in Classical Design. However, since most novel are Classical Design in nature, this is a problem that has been woven into the fabric of the novel.
In this situation, an editor will often have to work with the writer to force a more rigid plot structure on the novel. This will involve painful reworking of scenes, as well as the creation of new material.
So, as you can see, plot matters.
Readers will have a subconscious understanding of plot. You know that situation when you are watching a film or reading a book and you anticipate what’s going to happen next? That’s because after years of watching and reading you’ve been trained to expect a certain set of events. Reading a love story? You know the girl will get her boy? Watching a horror film and they decide to split up and investigate the spooky mansion? You know that a horrific axe murder is minutes away.
The problem that writers face is that if you are not following these conventions, then you will leave the reader frustrated as the book pans out in a way the reader is not expecting. This does not mean you should write formulaic and predictable novels, but you need to be aware of where to mess with the plot and where to play it safe.
This is where a good editor will become invaluable. They will be able to see where you’ve drifted and gently push you back on track. This is a little more difficult to do when self-editing but not impossible. The more you understand plot theory, the more you will be able to successfully follow and break the rules.
The final point to consider is that though you may be resistant to writing to a ‘formula’ what you must remember is that these ‘rules’ have been developed over thousands of years. They work and they work well. If you intend to just ignore the rules and reinvent the wheel you are probably heading for trouble. Yes, there’s some great experimental writers out there but they almost always come from a point of understanding and use deliberate experimentation, they are reacting to the rules and not ignoring them.
The chances are you just want to write a great story that reader will love, if that’s the case then the Plot Triangle is your friend, not your enemy.
- Decide if your novel is Classical Design, Minimalist or Anti-Structure.
- Look at the list of elements and tick off all that are being used in your novel.
- Consult the Plot Triangle. Consider each element in turn. Any element that appears in a plot structure different from your novel, flag up as a potential problem.
- Consider any potential problems and decide if they need to be addressed.