Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writing Basics: Plot v. Structure

photo cred: © Rasmus Landgreen – Unsplash

A few weeks ago, someone on Google+ kindly pointed out that my post on the six stages of plot was completely wrong. She then went on to explain to me, in detail, why I was wrong (from telling me about the mistakes I made at a "fundamental level" to placing me in her English Composition class).

Now, let me be clear: I LOVE criticism. In any given scenario, I would be more appreciative of genuine, constructive criticism than I would be of empty praise. Would I be happy about being criticized in any situation? No, but that does not mean I would not appreciate and even apply the criticisms.

I say all of the above to get to this point: this post is not meant to be a rant against that specific Google+ user. I found some of her comments very helpful, and am going to purchase some of the resource books she suggested. However, this post IS meant to be an explanation of my understanding of plot and structure.

Before we go any further, let me issue a disclaimer: I AM NOT A WRITING GURU/FAIRY GODMOTHER. Anything I say on this blog, in its entirety, is an amalgamation of my opinion and my experiences. I have stated multiple times that some of these blog posts, especially the ones on the Writing Basics series, are my thoughts and opinions on a particular topic as I consider it in the framework of my own writing.

Expounding upon my disclaimer of not being a writing guru/fairy godmother: I do not have some magical bodily orifice out of which I pull the content for my blog posts. I do research. I consult my university notes. I think back on my experiences and condense my knowledge into small paragraphs and phrases. I review other blogs on writing that have covered similar topics. I scour my resource books (and look at the Google samples of books I don't own yet) to check, double-check, and triple-check that what I am putting into a blog post is true. But doing none of these things makes me infallible; I can still be incorrect. Doing all of these things does mean that I have put forth the effort behind crafting a good post, even if that post only skims the surface of an issue/topic.

And all of this is to say: Criticize me. Point out where my explanations may be weak or where I could put in an example. Call me wrong and explain that wrongness to me. Print out my blog posts, burn them, and dance on their ashes. Do all of these things, but do not presume to call me uneducated, simple, or lazy.

Now, on to the actual post :)
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Basic Differences Between Plot and Structure
Let's first start with the definition of "plot" and "structure" from several sources:

"[T]he events of the plot relate to each other by being either necessary or probable, and they lead to a cumulative effect. . . Note that . . . traditional plots tend to focus on outward expressions of action." Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook, p. 137-8. 
"[T]he main story arc of a literary work" Dr. John L Flynn, Science Fiction Writing"What is plot? What is plot structure?" 
"A plot is the sequence of narrative events as witnessed by the audience." Chuck Wendig, "25 Things You Should Know About Plot" 
"An author's selection and arrangement of incidents in a story to shape the action and give the story a particular focus." -- Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature, p. 2189. 
"[A] series of events that form the story in a novel, movie, etc."

"Although there may be several classic plots and variations, each story can have a unique structure. Structure appeals . . . to the technical imagination . . . because structure feels as if it can be infinite in its variations, whereas plot does not." Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook, p. 147. 
"[O]ne of a finite number of plans in which to tell a story" Dr. John L Flynn, Science Fiction Writing, "What is plot? What is plot structure?" 
"Whether you put it there or not, no story goes from start to finish without structure . . . Structure serves story; story does not serve structure . . . Structure has purpose. Structure is where art and craft collide." Chuck Wendig, "25 Things You Should Know About Structure"
In short: Plot is the sequence of events in your story, whereas structure is how you choose to relate those events.

Other Concerns

In researching either plot or structure, you will come up with a variety of buzzwords like "Freytag's Pyramid," "3-Act Structure," "9-Act Structure," and "Bell's Remix," just to name a few. For clarification, the diagram I used in my post on the six stages of plot was Freytag's Pyramid, modified.

Just like any other topic for academic conversation, the differences between and functions of "plot" and "structure" are widely debated. And by "debated," I really mean "everyone says different stuff." Check out these articles on plot and structure to get a feel for what these differences in defining/explaining plot/structure:

A lot of the differences between explanations stem from the focus of the authors in question/the resources such writers use. For example, if you have an author talking about structure using the "3-Act Structure," you are going to read a lot about the "beginning," the "middle," and the "end" of a story. Click on a different resource, and you are going to read a lot about the hero's journey, commitment, goals, and reversals. Click on yet another link, and you are going to read a lot about rising action, falling action, conflict introduction, and the climax.

We see additional differences between explanations of "plot" and "structure" when we consider the profession/discipline of the writers in question. So much overlap and "gray area" emerges when one researches plot and structure because so many different types of people utilize plot and structure. What do I mean by this? Well, think about it: novelists use plot and structure, screenwriters use plot and structure, and playwrights use plot and structure. But books, movies, and plays are three very different types of text that are executed in very different ways, right?

In addition, you will see more differences between the usage of "plot" and "structure" if you are talking about the craft of writing versus the analysis of literature.

That is a lot to take in when considering plot and structure!

My Personal Take on Plot and Structure

I like to think of plot and structure this way:

Plot is the collection of events that take place in my story, and the order in which those events appear (again, I must draw attention to the six stages of plot).

Structure, on the other hand, is how I choose to tell the story. Will I use flashbacks? Which point of view will I use? Where will I add tension? At what point will my climax appear? Should I spring my climax on readers, or should I have clues leading up to the climax? Will I have a resolution, and if so, how long will it be (how much page time will it get)?

Basically: Plot is the what and why. Structure is the how.

What are your views on plot and structure?
Do you actively consider plot or structure when you write?

Want to read the discussion that sparked the direction of this post? Read it here.

Final disclaimer: You guys. It is called "Writing Basics." I am not covering every possible facet of every possible writing topic. Sometimes I skim the surface of a topic, and sometimes I consider a topic in greater depth. No matter what direction I go, I want to share my love of reading and writing with others. I don't want to bicker with community members.

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