Thursday, 23 August 2012

Make 'em wait.

There may or may not be seven basic plots, I have no idea. Christopher Booker says there are and he seems a knowledgeable sort of chap, though we may disagree about the reasons that Greenland's ice cover is melting and various other matters. (Him being a climate change sceptic and me being a non-driving near vegan and all that.)

And it's also true that there is a very great deal that I don't know about Plot, not to mention Theme, Characterisation, Pace, Dialogue and all the rest. I have written two published novels and one unpublished one (the best of the three, of course) and a number of short stories. The Unwritten far exceeds the Written, at this stage of my life.

But I do know one thing. The best writers know how to make the reader wait. Literary novelists may do this via the medium of endless description, or a general vagueness suggestive of profundity. (You may find, in the end, that you waited in vain.) Thriller writers approach this by deploying corpses and unexpected twists, with or without referencing Poe and The Gothic. Old school novelists Tell a Good Tale, in the manner of Stephen King or the mighty Mr Dickens. Anticipation is all. Delayed gratification is one of the greatest pleasures we can experience.

So is this the reason that I haven't yet revealed the mysteries of the Seventh Plot? Not really. I've been studying and on holiday:

Observe the reckless enjoyment and dedication to the moment demonstrated here as my son and I wait for a meal to arrive in Rhodes. Perhaps I am wondering how the holiday will end, what the twist will be, or what to write in my blog once I have covered The Seven Basic Plots. Who knows? I may or may not reveal this among other facets of a writer's craft in my next post. Now that's what I call a cliff-hanger.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Plot number six: Tragedy

In a tragedy, things end badly. Christopher Booker says that, crudely put, a story will end either with the union of lovers or with death. In tragedy, death is usually violent and premature. But tragedy isn't necessarily depressing. One friend of mine prefers sad endings: happy endings make them feel excluded and inadequate.

There is no simple formula for tragedy, it takes innumerable forms and some of the other story types: such as the dark Quest - might also be tragedies. However, C. Booker cites five examples which illustrate the most simple and enduring tragic story structure. These are: the story of Icarus; 'Faust': 'Macbeth'; 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' and 'Lolita'.

The basic outline is this: the hero/heroine embarks on a course of action which is dangerous or forbidden: they go over to the dark side. This works for a while, and there is a brief halcyon period. But then they realise they can't find satisfaction. The protagonist becomes more and more frustrated and unhappy. Attempts to make his/her position stronger or safer fail. The dream goes sour; they are trapped in a nightmare. Violent destruction follows.

Tragedy can be split into different sub-categories: the hero divided against himself (like Faust) or the hero as monster (like Humbert Humbert in 'Lolita'.) But  in spite of the infinite variety within this story structure, there is a template which is useful when developing or planning any storyline. Essentially, a good plot is dynamic and there is a sense of movement and pace within the story; a sense of the dread inevitability of events.

This is the template:

1. Anticipation Stage. An unsatisfied or curious hero is tempted or attracted by something new.
2. Dream Stage. The hero commits himself to this course of action, and it all seems to be working.
3. Frustration Stage. Gradually, the situation unravels: he cannot find satisfaction or rest.
4. Nightmare Stage. This was a very bad idea. Everything spirals out of control; darkness beckons.
5. Destruction or Death Wish. It all comes crashing down. The hero meets a bad end.

Tragedies also tap into something fundamental in our psychology. Watch King Lear mourning the loss of Cordelia and you might feel a connection with the rest of humanity, and experience a flash of understanding about the universality of loss.