It’s hard to explain—especially in light of the traditional instruction in English classes about the way stories work—especially how novels work. Dunno how often somebody’s asked me to discuss plot—and I just groan, because I’m not sure there is such a beast, at least of the color, size, coat-texture and conformation described in English class. It’s what hung me up in my course of learning how to write for about two years.
WHAT happens in a book is sort of important. WHO happens in a book and how their minds work is more so. WHEN the WHAT happens is way, way, way down the list. So the traditional book report in which Johnny gets up and recites the sequence of events in the book (besides being boring) is probably the most irrelevant thing about the book. It’s only the thing the writer decided at the last moment.
Think of it as a fireworks show. You’ve got certain triggers that are going to set off certain colored lights. How you arrange them is, yes, sort of important, but the larger nexi that group the triggers into meaningful sections are sort of mutable: you can pull the whizzbanger type A from collection 3 and put it in 5 with no trouble at all. And sometimes you discover you’ve got one trigger that really needs to be shown-but-not-touched (now we’re talking about novels) and having it set off a nice little set of actions here near the beginning could do that—until it’s REALLY pulled later; but by that time you want to link a bunch of other little fireworks to it, so that multiple things will get solved by one trigger.
That’s plot. I think of it not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions. Events are cheap. They can be moved all about at will. They can be put in any sort of order. That’s why Johnny’s book report made no more sense to me, who started to write at 10, than the legendary bunny with a pancake on its head. It bugged me. Bigtime. It was describing a very minor thing about the book—and I just had a lot of trouble believing that was what the book was about…to the extent that I’d go into the Dreaded Book Report assignment trying to report on the triggers, not the events, and then I’d get distracted, because there was often something that just didn’t satisfy me about the way the writer had handled the flow of it all, and I was too young at the time to understand what was driving me crazy.
It was realizing all this stuff about sequence just proved to the teacher you’d actually read the book—heck, I was such a brutally truthful kid teacher could have just asked me and saved us some agony; and finally realizing that it was just a list of trivia, so far as its importance in the plot. Map-driven books, like quests, are the simplest, because there really IS a sequence that’s nailed to a map, and it’s pretty straightforward: if you get into trouble with pacing, don’t invent an incident to fill the Great Nothingness Desert—move the mountains three days closer and don’t make the desert so important. IE, change the map, f’ gosh sakes.
Intrigue of any sort is one of the hardest—because there are twists and turns and there IS no map: the territory to be crossed is all in the mind of at least one individual—and if it’s in the minds of half a dozen individuals, you’ve got yourself a big team of horses to manage. If you’ve built them right, they’ll surprise you—but they’ll always be logical. Like the chimp in the test who was handed a pole and a set of big stackable boxes — in a bare room with desirable bananas hanging from the ceiling—said chimp went through no process at all with the boxes, just stood the tall pole on end with a quick thump, shinnied up the pole with balance unlikely in a human, grabbed the bananas and shinnied down, then sat peeling his banana in the wreckage of the scientist’s behavioral experiment on tool use. A good character will do that to you. Several good characters are a three ring circus of such behaviors. They keep writing a fun exercise.
Sequence? Naw. It’s chimpanzees. Lots of chimpanzees. And if your plot isn’t nailed to a map, you can move events all over the place. It’s why I write my ‘plots’ , ie, the anticipated events, on an old calendar—and once I’m finished, you’ll see a lot of X’s where I nixed a thing where I’d thought it would happen, and moved it earlier or later in the whole book.
That’s why writers should not drive in heavy traffic or cook with high temperatures while they’re ‘plotting.’ It’s like 3-dimensional chess, and it makes you just a little zooey.