Carol Brennan King
Today in class, we went back to the beginning, considering the physical elements of a story – like plot, scenes, and chapters.
Part 1: One of my students had asked for a definition of plot.
And as I did a little research, I can see how she might be confused. Here are three different definitions of plot, but as you look at them, think about how they overlap.
- According to Dictionary.com, a plot is “the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary work.” It is both what the story is about and the series of events that make up the story.
- A plot is also defined as a simple sequence of events, with a strong plot centered on a single moment or interruption of a flow or pattern. Think of a turning point or an action that raises the question: What is going to happen now that this unexpected event has occurred?
- Another definition calls a plot the secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially by the bad guy to harm the good guy, or a bad group to harm the good or innocent people – like in a war.
- A plot is also called the storyline, the plan or scheme as we said above, or simply the main story of a literary or dramatic work.
Remember there are a lot of mini-conflicts in any larger work, but when it is all distilled the plot revolves around one major issue.
For example: Brian really likes Lilly. So he tries to find occasions to get to know her better and to impress her. Maybe he asks her if she’s going to a game where he is going to be playing. If she tells him, she’s going and shows up, everything looks positive. But what if Danny overhears this, and when she shows up at the game, he finagles a seat by her and does his best to undermine Brian.
Brian doesn’t give up, after all, she was there. So he asks her out, just to get to know each other. But Danny cuts that off by giving Brian a flat tire. And the story goes on – Brian tries, Danny ambushes, though Brian does not know it is Danny undermining him. Then someone enlightens Brian about Danny’s subterfuge, and to win the girl, he has to find a way through or around the next conflicts. At last, his efforts either win the girl, or he is too late.
Then you write the conclusion: is it a happy ending, and unhappy ending or a tragedy as we talked about it class?
William Foster Harris says in The Basic Patterns of Plot that there are three plot types as I just mentioned: happy ending, unhappy ending, or tragedy – perhaps defined as an unrecoverable ending – or at least unrecoverable as defined as a goal in the beginning of the story. We talked about the memoir of a doctor who had cancer. He died. Unrecoverable? Perhaps for him, but he knew it was coming and did much to prepare his wife and family to go on successfully without him. Where do you think this ending falls?
Part 2: Scenes and Chapters
Sometimes a scene can make up an entire chapter – remember – a scene is a place where things happen. Other times, a chapter can have several scenes.
In the first scene, we might meet the protagonist and see him or her at work, and we could meet the character who would become his enemy. That could be the end of the first chapter.
Or there could be two more scenes, one in which we see the antagonist in his workplace across town talking to his boss about the protagonist. The third scene in that chapter might go back to the protagonist getting a phone call requiring him to leave work to go home suddenly. Three scenes, yet all one chapter.
The point is both scenes and chapters have a place in your story’s pacing. Short chapters tend to move the action along quicker. Longer chapters might lull you into relaxing with the longer flow of information and less tension. Remember, both scenes and chapters have a part in how quickly your story unfolds, and how your reader experiences the story.
Some people feel a natural sense of closure at the end of a chapter, like it is a signal to relax. This does not necessarily occur at the end of a scene.
Part 3: Planning your story
We know by now that scenes, chapters, and books all have an arc made up of a beginning, middle, and end. But what percentage of the whole do each of these parts serve?
Again I refer to Savannah Gilbo who says “In general, the beginning represents 25% of the story, the middle represents 50% and the end represents the final 25%.
She illustrates this with an 80,000 word novel.
Beginning 20,000 words or 25%
Middle 40,000 words or 50%
End 20,000 or 25%
On her page at https://www.savannahgilbo.com/blog/scenes-vs-chapters#:~:text=Scenes%20are%20mini%2Dstories%20that,to%20control%20the%20reader%27s%20experience she recommends keeping your scenes between 1000 and 2000 words.
From those figures, she sees the beginning and final parts of the book each having 13 scenes, the center 26 scenes.
Now, remember, there is no law requiring you to follow strictly these numbers, but it does help to keep you focused.
To make this more practical for a short story writer, I did a little experiment:
Think of a 5000 word short story. Now 25% of that would be about 1250 for the first scene and opening. Then we have 2500 words and two scenes for the middle and 1250 or one scene possibly for the conclusion or end of the story. Again, there is not a law stating these figures, but it does help you to plot and organize your work.
Well, that was a lot of new information. Just think it through and do a little outline of your own with a short story that you have been thinking about, adjusting your scene count (for the reader and the flow of the story) according to the word count you are working with.
For newbies here, I have an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from Binghamton University in New York State and taught in the Communications field for 30 years. I have dozens of publications from newspaper to magazines to journals. I have two poetry chapbooks published and am in the process of getting a novel called Leaving Ireland published.