The Plot Diamond, Part Two: Turning Ideas into Plots
In last week’s post I introduced the concept of the Plot Diamond – a rejigged plotting pro-forma which partakes of many different ways of looking at a fairly classical, Hero’s Journey type of narrative. This has its limitations, which I listed and explained in that post, but despite them I do think that for many writers and many stories, this is a useful device. It’s often been useful for me.
When we talk about having ‘an idea for a book/novel/story’, the chances are that what we really mean is that we have a cupped handful of fragments of a story, glinting and bright enough to inspire us to seek to piece them together. One strong character, perhaps, and a vague sense of how it all starts and ends. A theme you’re compelled to explore and a couple of really strong, hit-you-in-the-head scenes that would perfectly embody it. Maybe a perfectly detailed climactic scene and almost nothing at all leading up to it. You’ve now got to try and figure out how to fit these events together into a plot. How to close the gaps between them in a way that makes sense, that is entertaining to read, that is worth writing. In other words, you have to figure out how to make all the fragments into a whole, without any idea what the finished form of the thing should really be. At this stage, some writers make character or story collages, either in hard copy using images cut from magazines or photos, or else online using an app like Pinterest. Others utilise index cards or Post Its to list discretely everything that they know about characters, setting, story, mood. Some just dive straight into the writing and hope to anchor their ideas that way. This is all answering the same instinct, which is to get every single tiny fragment, even the ones no larger than a grain of sand, laid out neatly in front of you so that they cannot do the mental equivalent of slipping down the back of the sofa or tumbling into the pile of the rug, never to be seen again.
The very act of writing down or concretising your ideas (in whatever form) makes them feel more real and get-at-able. Often as you begin to list them they will expand right before your eyes, drawing other ideas from your subconscious and attracting them into one mass the way that a proto-planet attracts space debris. Your snippet of dialogue suddenly has three compelling characters attached. Your image of a setting has a tragic situation and two more settings nested within.
This is a part which feels intensely magical and by the end of it you have expanded your handful of fragments to the point where it overflows your cupped palms – or rather, your mental capacity to keep everything straight.
It’s a very good job that you wrote it all safely down or made this lovely collage. Well done.
Now for the bad news: you still don’t have a story, or the plot for a story. A narrative is more than a series of events that happen one after another. There needs to be some kind of underlying structure (whatever that is): rising tension, rising stakes, opportunities for characters to change and evolve, or fail to. The story needs to move your imaginary people through events of physical and emotional and mental significance in a way that reveals them to the reader. Sometimes when you've pinned all your ideas down you still won't feel you have enough volume to make a convincing novel or story. Other times it will look as if you have far too much. Well, this is where the Plot Diamond comes in (cue: the malevolent cackle of a magpie, wind wailing against the windows, the flicker of the lights).
Obviously before we can really get started on how to use this tool, there needs to be an in-depth explanation for the different terms it utilises. And I’m afraid that in order to offer the greatest clarity here, I’m going to rely on descriptions of the events of films, because I can be sure that at least some of you will have seen at least some of the ones I chose. So:
FIRST PLOT EVENT: This is the event that kicks off the story proper and is sometimes also referred to as ‘the inciting event’. It might not, however, be the first scene of the story. Sometimes a narrative begins by showing the character or characters’ world, illustrating the most important people or factors in their life or establishing their ambitions or deepest wishes. Leading up to a dramatic or significant event – as in The Fellowship of the Ring, where we're introduced to the idyllic Shire and Frodo's well-hidden longing for adventure – allows us to understand what is at stake for the protagonist when the first plot event occurs and something changes.
Some writing books will tell you that you must cut straight to the action. And for some genres or some kinds of stories, that’s perfectly OK to do. But it’s not vital, and there are many books which do no such thing. What is vital is that you begin with something relevant to the wider story; scenes which will signpost to the reader what kind of journey they’re about to go on, events which will reveal their significance as the narrative develops. CHARACTER TAKES ACTION TO CHANGE COURSE OF PLOT: Sometimes known as ‘the character accepts the call to action’. Perhaps your protagonist or protagonists rocket straight from their first plot event to acceptance of their situation without stopping for breath (like an 80s action hero). In which case, this event and that one may very well blend together. But generally after the big disruption of the first plot event, characters seek to return to the status quo. Perhaps they refuse to accept what's happened, struggle to rationalise or deny it, try to find safety by mindlessly embracing the comfort of their old routine, or protest that this is just a big misunderstanding and really nothing to do with them. However at some point most characters (though not all!) will seek to regain their agency and take control of their situation. They decide to do something. Sometimes this action backfires, sometimes it works. In either case, this is the trigger for further events. The moment when the character first begins to truly effect the plot is usually an important one. It tells the reader a lot about who the character is and whom they have the potential to become. Using The Fellowship of the Ring as an example again, this is when Frodo, having reached the safety of the Rivendell, and having been given a viable chance to step out of this life-or-death adventure and head home without any stain on his character, instead steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. MAJOR DISASTER OR SETBACK: I have also seen this referred to as ‘the mirror moment’, ie, it’s when the protagonist or protagonists are brought face to face with themselves. The events triggered by the interaction of the main character's choices and the plot now reach a critical point. Things might have seemed to be going really well up to this point, or it could have been a hard fought battle all the way. In either case, at the moment when success seemed assured, or the characters thought they’d found temporary sanctuary or at least could stop to rest… disaster strikes. This changes the course of the story again. Often the reader will have seen this setback coming all along. Sometimes even the characters can see it. But they're powerless to prevent it, either because of an essential flaw in their own character or strategy (established prior to this, of course) or because the forces aligned against them are overwhelming.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, this is the whole section where the Fellowship are forced to seek shelter in the mines of Moria and end up trapped there as a series of escalating disasters imperil them, causing them to lose Gandalf. In Disney's The Little Mermaid, this is where Ursula the Sea Witch sees that Ariel and the Prince are falling in love, realises her dastardly plan isn’t going to work, and casts a spell to enchant the Prince and make her his own. Ariel wakes up full of joy, convinced of Prince Eric’s regard for her – only to find him suddenly engaged to another woman. THE PLATEAU OF AWFULNESS: This is the beginning of the end of the novel or story. In the midst of the fallout from the great disaster that brought the main character or characters face to face with themselves… something even worse, often contrasting with that earlier disaster, happens. It's the part of the story where things literally cannot get any worse. There's no way back now; it's do or die.
Following an unsuccessful attempt by Boromir to take the ring, Frodo realises that without Gandalf he cannot stay with the Fellowship anymore, because the ring will twist and destroy them all, one by one. At exactly this moment, orcs attack the party. Ursula the Sea Witch is exposed by Ariel and her animal sidekicks as an imposter before she can marry Eric – but it’s already too late and now Ariel’s soul belongs to her.
One of the best (and best known) examples of this is in The Matrix. Near the end of the film, most of the crew of the ship have been slaughtered by a traitor and Neo is stuck in the Matrix fighting against Agent Smith – then the alarm on the ship goes off, signalling that a killer 'squid' is approaching. The only way the crew can save themselves is to set off the EMP. But if they do that, Neo will die. The attack of the killer machine contrasts beautifully with the main disaster – Neo's battle against the Agent – because while Neo is a blur of action, running and fighting for his life, the crew are forced into stillness, silence and inaction, desperately willing Neo to win but unable to fight for their own lives.
This is often the moment of peak emotional suffering for the main character or characters. It's when you knock their supports away (other characters they have come to care for and rely on, a last desperate hope, their own illusions about themselves, their world, or the opposition) and force them to fall. In despair, fury, new determination or sudden revelation, they are now propelled forward to the final events of the story. LAST PLOT EVENT: "Um, hang on a minute, there are only FOUR points on that diamond," says the astute reader. "How can there be five points on your list?" Well, that’s the thing about a hero’s journey story-type: in the end, everything comes full circle (in some sense at least). This final plot event is where you must fulfil the promises that you made to the reader at the beginning, bringing the story to a natural and satisfying close. Just as with the first plot event, despite its name this might not be the actual last scene in the story – but it's the last point in the story where events are still in flux. Further chapters may tie up loose ends, but shouldn't significantly alter what has occurred in the last plot event.
Frodo and Sam escape in their boat – now the last hope of Middle Earth – and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas decide to let them go and attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin instead. Ariel’s father relents and transforms his daughter into a human so she can be with Eric. Trinity kisses an unconscious Neo and tells him that she loves him, and he responds by proving he is The One and destroying Agent Smith at the same moment that Morpheus presses the EMP button and kills the squid-robot that is tearing the ship apart. I hope you can see now how this works. The simple structure makes it very easy to parse how events you might already have in mind should be placed within the narrative in order to pace the story dynamically, and again, the act of doing so can often draw other ideas out of your subconscious as you realise that this scene you imagined could be a Plateau of Awfulness, and then surely the best event to follow it would be this, followed by that... Even if the events you have in your head don’t fit the definitions of the ‘main’ events listed above, could they perhaps be the lead-ins or sequels to such events? If you can fill in three or four of the points on the diagram, even if it turns out you have three Major Setbacks and two PoAs, you're well on your way to having a complete story.
This post is quite long enough for one week, so next Monday I’ll go into the real nuts and bolts of using this tool and demonstrate how to map your work onto the Plot Diamond structure. Good writing in the meantime.