Where’s the Plot? Tuesday Tidbits with Kay Keppler
I know what plot is. It’s action, and especially, it’s conflict. Conflict drives stories. But conflict is hard. I hate making my heroine suffer. She’s so nice. Why can’t everybody just get along? But of course, there’s no story if everybody’s happy. Without action, without conflict, there’s no plot, and then there’s no story.
Not all actions are created equal. To be plot, actions have to have consequences. In one of my favorite series, Charlaine Harris’s character, Sookie Stackhouse, likes to take showers. Early in Dead Reckoning, Sookie takes a shower after a tough night waiting tables at the bar. She relaxes in the hot water, letting her concerns wash away.
Then she goes to bed.
Is that plot? Of course not. It’s description, and it’s foreshadowing, but Sookie’s shower doesn’t have any consequences. There’s no real action in the action.
It’s different, though, when Sookie takes a shower with Eric. As anyone who reads the series knows, that shower had a lot of consequences, and not just the immediate, ah, steamy ones.
And then compare those showers to the shower scene in Psycho. In it, Robert Bloch’s character Marion Crane is bathing to wash away her guilt about embezzling from her employer. (Conflict there, much? She feels guilty—internal conflict—and she’s being pursued as a suspect—external conflict. Conflict galore!)
We all know what happened in that shower scene in Psycho—Marion Crane is stabbed to death, and what washes down the drain in that scene is a lot more than just her daily worries. But her disappearance triggers an investigation, which leads to more mayhem. That’s consequence. That’s plot.
When I read books (sometimes many books) where the world is threatened, or the universe is threatened, or all the universes in all the galaxies in all of space are threatened, I sometimes think that’s a bit of overkill. I like a nice, juicy scare as much as the next person, but in real life, my biggest scare is usually along the lines of whether I’ll finish the milk before it goes sour.
But in writing Zero Gravity Outcasts, I went for the Big Scare myself, in the form of an interplanetary civil war. It’s because the consequences of actions have to be important. If they’re not, who cares? Not the readers, and not even the characters. The heroine might as well stay home and defrost the fridge.
Which I sort of like in a heroine, but I get that readers don’t—except maybe unless the secret capacitor compartment was punctured, and the freon escapes, and the world is threatened by expanding, poisonous gases… and the heroine doesn’t want to call Gas Busters because she’d planned to settle in with a movie and some popcorn, but the handsome agent rings the bell, and…like that. In any event, the concept of struggle—of conflict—is key.
The thing I have to keep asking myself when I write is, what’s at stake? If my protagonist fights the Deadly Hammer for 300 pages, killing angels and fairies and puppies along the way as collateral damage, suffers grievous wounds and the loss of family and friends, she better get more out of it than a trip to the store for a fresh quart of milk.
But that’s a whole other story. One that, I hope, I’ll be able to plot better next time.
Kay Keppler likes happy endings, whether they’re in the fiction she writes, the fiction she edits, or the fiction she reads. After all, an unhappy outcome is what the newspaper is for! Her characters are resourceful to a fault, hard-working to the extreme, and loyal to the end—but she’s still working on a decent plot. You can find her at kaykeppler.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @KayKeppler.
Zero Gravity Outcasts can be found at:
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