Monday, October 18, 2010

Plot vs. Situation

Frequently, I see someone talking about something they believe would make a great story. Sometimes it’s a writer. Sometimes it’s a person who has no idea what it would take to write a story. The problem is an issue of plot vs. situation. A situation is the current state of things. For example, if you wreck your car then you have a situation. If you meet an important person, that’s a situation. If you have a disease of some kind, that is a situation. As unusual as your situation may be, it doesn’t guarantee that writing about that situation will produce and interesting story.

Plot is what happens in a story. The plot makes or breaks the story. We may begin with a situation, but we have to work it into a plot. Consider the book, The Magic of Ordinary Days. The situation was that a young woman committed adultery and must keep her pregnancy secret. Now, consider also the book Not My Will. It too is built around the situation of a woman needing to keep her pregnancy secret, but the two books are distinctly different. In The Magic of Ordinary Days, the woman is sent to marry a single farmer. In Not My Will, the woman hides her marriage and puts her child up for adoption so that she can collect her inheritance from her spinster aunt’s estate.

When we start with the situation, we should ask ourselves whether the situation is driving the plot or is a result of the plot. In The Magic of Ordinary Days, the situation of her being pregnant is the initial disturbance of the story. It’s because of that situation that she’s sent away from home, but as the plot progresses that disturbance plays a less significant role. Yes, she’s pregnant and that shows up in the story, but the plot begins to focus on her relationship with other characters in the story, such as her husband and the two Japanese women. The world is at war with Germany and even the farmers in a remote part of the country are impacted by that war.

We see the plot in the ordinary stuff that takes place. She’s never had to do the stuff that expected of her on the farm. As the plot progresses, the situation doesn’t remain constant. We can think of the plot as the actions that take place to change one situation into another. Throughout a story, we find many different situations that are created as the characters take action to remove themselves from the previous situation.