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In today’s blog, I’d like to share my thoughts about the first element in creating a fast-paced story—a great plot.
What is plot?
Everybody knows that plot is the primary story line, but it’s really more than that. Any story idea can be used to generate a work of fiction, but what is the difference between a run-of-the-mill story idea and a kick-ass plot?
A great plot must produce strong tension. How does it do that? Conflict. All tension is driven by conflict, but not all conflict creates great tension.
Consider Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises. To me, it sucked. Conflict came principally from internal angst of the main character who loves the female lead, but can never consummate the relationship with her, yet she beds several other men during the story. In my opinion, it was little more than a soap-opera-by-book before television popularized the sport of sexual infidelity. Its action scenes bored me. I suspect its success back in 1926 was probably due to public voyeurism as establishment readers enjoyed titillation from the story’s description of the sexual freedoms embraced by the “lost” generation. Really tame stuff by today’s standards.
There is a valuable lesson in my experience with The Sun Also Rises. PLOT IS NOT UNIVERSAL. Each plot has a target audience. My dear Mr. Hemingway would not find me to be a suitable reader of his first major novel, because his plot does not interest me. I simply don’t feel the required tension to make the story compelling.
On the other hand, I loved his book Old Man and the Sea. This plot intrigued me—a classic man versus nature battle with brilliantly written internal dialog and scene narration. Tension was palpable for me. In fact, I read it more than once.
Therein lies my impression of the importance of plot to writing the “page turner.” Writers like me must know our intended readers for our stories and carefully select plots to match. Conflict that matters to a reader will keep that person turning pages as fast as possible. It’s kind of like watching a sport. If the observer likes the sport, it is exciting. But, if the sport is golf, oh my God, how boring, at least for me.
I try to understand my readers’ needs when I take a basic plot and flesh out my story. For example, I have a war story, Palace Dawgs, written with men in mind, especially former soldiers. Will women like it? Some will. Some won’t. But, from the very beginning, the story caters to those story elements that will enhance tension through war-related conflict. This plot will be compelling for the right set of readers.
On the other hand, Maker of Angels is a western romance story about forbidden love between a white cowboy and a renegade Indian woman. It follows the growth of the main character from a naïve young college graduate to a highly skilled gunfighter who ends up in a gunfight against impossible odds to save the Indian woman he loves. Women who enjoy complex stories and highly developed character conflict with a romance theme are my target audience.
Botton line? Plot meant for a clearly defined group will lead to a page-turner experience for those readers. Once the audience profile is understood and the ideal plot developed, then magic will happen.