Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.
The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.
Chapter 3: Plotting
This chapter was written by Isaac Asimov. It is the first of five that he contributed to the book. It’s short—only five pages—but covers the essentials of plotting a story.
To start, he tells the story of how a quote in an article said he had “the greatest mind for plot of any science fiction writer.” As it was the first time he received such a compliment, he started thinking about the process of plotting. The result is this chapter.
What is plot?
Asimov’s description of plot is: an outline of the events of a story.
He follows by comparing a plot to a skeleton. And that plot and story have the same relationship as a skeleton and a living animal. The plot is a guide. The writer must be like a paleontologist and build the animal (story) from the description provided by the skeleton (plot).
While a plot might outline a story, a bare plot will not become a story without a skilled writer to build it. A plot in the hands of a non-writer will not yield a story. That person doesn’t have the skill to build from a bare skeleton.
Asimov goes on to list three ways that a plot might come to life:
- Create a highly detailed plot so that there’s not much left to write. This is a typical action plot where the reader is hurried along from crisis to crisis. He notes this is most often used in comic books and children’s stories. The bang-bang action doesn’t stop to allow for character development. Although it has its place in film.
- The other extreme is no plot. The parts of the story are unconnected by any overarching goals. This style is more about creating a mood or an emotion. While artistic, it will leave most wondering what happened.
- This is the fertile middle ground. Where a story will have a distinct plot that is filled out with non-plot elements. A few non-plot elements are:
- Humor, where the events conspire to create comedy or satire.
- Character, where the events are the background for character development.
- Ideas, where the events are used to develop ideas the writer wishes to explore.
It’s no surprise to anyone that’s read Asimov’s Foundation series that he prefers 3a. These elements are not mutually exclusive. A character driven story might have humor woven into its texture.
He goes on to deconstruct his own novels. By rushing to tell the story his way, he is willing to sacrifice characterization and humor on the altar of ideas. This is a compromise he is willing to make. He also has to live with the criticism of his flat characters and the “talkiness” of his novels.
In going back to the opening quote that inspired this chapter, he mentions that its author and he might not be thinking along the same lines. The quote was probably meant to describe how his plots cleanly wrap up loose ends and don’t get in the way of his ideas.
For this he offers no guides. Clean plotting “takes a great deal of hard thinking.”
Overall this chapter has solid advice. By describing the plot as a skeleton , Asimov has fixed that image in my mind. The skeleton is what holds the story together. It also moves it along through time and space. Without a skeleton the story is just a blob that doesn’t go anywhere fast.
Once there is a skeleton, it can be brought to life. The skeleton is made of events, and more events just create more skeleton. So to fill it out—to add the meat and the life—the writer must use non-plot elements. This “filler” is the heart of the story. By clearly separating the elements of the story from the plot has truly helped me to understand story structure.
One added benefit was giving me a clear picture of the humor—character—idea plot-filler triangle. As with a triangle the length of sides can vary throughout out a story. But Asimov’s comment also brings to mind the saying about only being able to choose two. In his case he usually choses only one.
I think another way to do this would be by keeping a mental picture of the triangle. Think of its overall height as the length of the story. If it gets too tall because all three sides got longer, the story becomes too long for the events of the plot. There just simply isn’t enough room for everything. By adjusting the sides, the writer can alter the feel of the story. The final shape will be a reflection of how the writer chose to tell the story.
This short chapter has helped me to understand more about plotting than anything else I’ve read. It’s worth the price of the book by itself.