The Plot Diamond, Part Three: Turning Plots into Stories
Hello, and welcome back to An Eddying Flight. Today I'm tackling the final part of this process which has taken us from inspiration to idea, from idea to plot, and this week will lead from plot to story.
Last week we looked at the basic Plot Diamond (Cue: unearthly wails from the tower, ominous rumblings in the cellar, the faint stench of burned hair and burned sugar) and I went through each of the five crucial plot turning points that inform the structure of a classic Hero's Journey-type narrative in a fair amount of detail. With any luck you've got a good handle on them now, and how they work, individually and together, to create that useful, bare-bones structure upon which many stories can be developed.
This week I'll demonstrate the nuts and bolts process of filling a plot diamond in with your own particular versions of these events and then using it as a way to parse out the rest of what you want to write, transforming the 'plot' into something resembling an actual story; a narrative which you can realistically tackle putting into words.
To do this, I'm once again going to fall back on a familiar narrative which I believe almost anyone reading this blog will know well: Cinderella.
Here's an interesting note, before we start. Cinderella actually has a straight plot journey, like most of those classic female heroes I name-checked in the first of this series of posts. Her 'happy ending' and plot resolution involve her marriage to a prince who takes her permanently away from her starting point, the family home. In some versions the stepmother and sisters hang out there forever and become withered (unmarried) old hags - in others they are rather horribly killed by the prince. Either way, Cinderella never goes back to have her adventures and achievements admired by her family or community as the traditional male hero does.
But you'll remember that I said one of the useful/terrifying things about the Plot Diamond is that with a little bit of effort you can make stories fit to it even if they don't really have a hero's journey shape? Well, that's the case here. And that's one of the reasons why the Plot Diamond is useful to many writers as an intial tool.
Once you have your events parsed out, you can throw the Diamond shape straight into the bin if you or your story need and want to. Then feel free to allow the narrative to Meander, Spiral or Explode just as it wishes. Don't ever feel that you can't pursue particular developments within the narrative just because it would pull the handy straight lines of the diamond out of shape. The Plot Diamond is a tool, not (as I've emphasized before) the Universal Cheat Code, or The Boss Of You.
With this disclaimer out of the way, let's begin mapping Cinderella's Diamond:
Still very basic, yes. But with the major turning points of Cinderella's journey nailed down and the structure beginning to be clearer to us, we can get onto the process of actually creating a story. And we'd do this by starting to fill in each of the sides of the diamond shape with events - story developments and significant character moments - which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on. What's fun and surprising and joyous to me is that if you and I were to both start out with that intial plot diagram above, we would more than likely come up with radically different ways to get our heroine from point one to two point to point three, involving not only different story developments but different tones/atmospheres in our writing and different character motivations and reactions. In fact, perhaps you disagree with me on which events in this narrative actually fit to the five crucial plot points on the Diamond? If so, great! That's already a sign of how versatile and individual we each are as writers.
Here's my version of the next stage:
This isn't exactly a huge amount of detail - but you can already see the difference. This is a story now, not just a plot. It includes scenes not just of action but reaction, not just scenes that develop the plot but scenes that develop the character. It shows you what events I, as a unique person/writer, think are significant and interesting enough to dramatise. There's some emphasis on the magic here, and apparently I intend to handle the romance angle by leaning into love-at-first-sight as a device. I'm also putting some emotional significance on Cinderella's spirituality and her bond with her deceased mother. Could fairy 'godmother' perhaps be the ghost of her mother, as in some traditional takes on this story? At this stage, the Diamond makes you ask questions, rather than just being a bare list of events.
For a lot of people this would be quite enough and they could start writing. But the way I personally work with the Plot Diamond is to try and fill in the first side of the diamond in as much detail as possible before I start my draft. That way, I have a decent amount of events and characterisation beats working away in the back of my head as I start envisioning the opening of the novel, and my unconscious will often help out by gently infusing my prose with imagery and symbolism that turns out to be significant as I continue writing. This part usually leaves me with something that looks more like this:
I'm aware that this is an intimidating amount of detail for a certain set of writers. No one has to aim for this! However, you'll note that there's still plenty of space for changes later in the story, on the second two sides of the diamond. This is one of the genuinely good, non-problematic aspects of this diagram; you can use it as a living document. It gives you structure, but it also gives you space to let your characters and narrative grow and develop, teaching you about them as you continue to write them.
I generally find that by the time I've reached point two (Character Action) I've grown to know the world, story and characters well enough to be able to go on ahead and fill in the next side with a few more details too, and I keep going that way all along. If I tried to fill the whole Plot Diamond with this level of detail before I started writing, I wouldn't be able to - or, if I did, I would crush all the life out of the thing and probably kill it.
I hope the explanation of this process has been fun and interesting at worst, and useful at the best. If you've got burning questions to ask, different interpretations to share, or just want to talk about the way you would have parsed out Cinderella's story, please do speak up in the comments below. I promise to read and respond.