Today, a brief word on what I mean when I talk about plots.
In a word, a plot is change. That’s going to be the one of the key things to remember. Books have lots of plots, lots of changes, but typically they’re all twined together into one larger plot, like smaller strands woven into a braid.
When I’m plotting, I try to look for the central change that will be the heart of my story. (And I also make a very real effort to KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid—because this is one part where getting down to the nitty gritty details too early in the game will drive you six kinds of bonkers.)
I like to diagram changes like so:
Subject: beginning → end
Usually the central change of a story is defeating the Big Baddie. Here are some examples from popular stories.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Quirrel/Voldemort: undercover at Hogwarts → defeated (temporarily)
Star Wars: A New Hope Death Star: threat → destroyed
I say that the central change is usually defeating the Big Baddie because plots are like ogres and onions—they have layers. So, looking at Lord of the Rings, if the central change were defeating the Big Baddie, the diagram would look like this:
Sauron: threat → defeated
Don’t get me wrong. Defeating Sauron is a major focus of Lord of the Rings, but it’s not the central change. The central change starts the book and ends the book*. Sauron has been a threat for hundreds of years (thousands of years? I’m not up on my Middle Earth timelines), but Lord of the Rings doesn’t start way back then. It doesn’t even start with the Battle of the Last Alliance. It starts in the Shire.
It starts when Bilbo leaves the One Ring to Frodo. It starts when Gandalf realizes exactly what “Bilbo’s funny magic ring” really is.
Lord of the Rings One Ring: rediscovered → destroyed
And the central change doesn’t have to be defeating evil at all. Toy Story’s central change is about Woody and Buzz’s relationship.
Woody + Buzz: rivalry → friendship
That central change influences other secondary changes, like being separated from Andy → being reunited with Andy, or Buzz believing he’s a real space ranger → accepting he’s a toy (and being okay with that).
So next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, take a moment to consider the beginning of the story and the end of the story and see if you can spot the changes—in a character’s personality, the environment, society, politics, the possibilities go on and on—and consider how they influence one another.
Think of it as an exercise for your writer’s brain. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more ideas you’ll have for your own plots.
*Lord of the Rings gets special mention because the central change—destroying the One Ring—doesn’t end the book. There’s an entire hobbit-only adventure at the end where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have to retake the Shire, because Saruman is a vindictive old word-I’m-not-allowed-to-say-in-front-of-impressionable-youth. If Tolkien had consulted modern writing instructors who favored the One Plot To Rule Them All approach**, they probably would have told him to cut that section entirely, put it in a sequel, or find a way to save the Shire before defeating Sauron, just to neaten up the structure. I guess the takeaway is that if you’re good enough at what you do, you can tell the rules to go hang.
**There are books that have several central changes which all happen in a kind of overlapping structure, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t really fall under this umbrella either since it’s 95% Destroy the Ring and 5% Reclaim the Shire. I’ll discuss this more later, but for now we’ll focus on books with just the one central change.***
***I may be overdoing footnotes a bit. I regret nothing.