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On Plot and Action, and How They are Not the Same Thing

Image: Jacob Sciacchitano
So one time in high school my English teacher interrupted whatever I was daydreaming about and asked me how to identify verbs. It was an easy question for an English nerd, right? They're the active words, I explained. The ones which are doing something. And my teacher said that I wasn't entirely wrong, but he usually tried to avoid describing verbs like that, because sometimes his students got confused. Not just because some verbs are passive, but also because not all active verbs seem particularly active. Like sleeping, and thinking. And daydreaming.

But they're still actions, I argued.  Because if you're sleeping, you’re still doing something, aren't you? It's impossible to truly be doing nothing, unless you're dead. Privately, I thought that anyone who couldn't make that kind of distinction was probably kind of, well, stupid.

And then it turned out that I was kind of stupid too.

I talked about this a little in my last post, but I used think to about plot in this way. I've never had an instinctive grasp of how plot works; it’s something I've spent years teaching myself, and then re-teaching myself. It's always been the thing I found hardest about writing, and for a long time, the thing I liked least. Plot wasn't characters, or pretty sentences; it was external, an ugly but necessary evil. Plot was Things! Happening! Quickly! It was battle scenes and searching for missing people and running away and saving your brother from the aliens and pulling out swords and action. Plot was something you trudged through to get to the interesting stuff that wasn't plot. The scenes where characters drank tea and argued and told their secrets and kissed. The quiet stuff. The character stuff.

I recently overhauled a huge section in the middle of a novel I've been working on for a long time, a section full of scenes where my main character did things! In a hurry! And stuff happened! But while these scenes were full of action, they weren't full of plot. Sure, there was plenty of external movement, but nothing internal, nothing that truly found its way under my main character’s skin. They weren't connecting with the scenes around them to carry the story forward; instead, they were the equivalent of running passionately on the spot. I'd rewritten them plenty of times, I'd changed the action from one kind to another and then to something else again. But this hadn't fixed them. Slowly, as I tried to make sense of why this part of my novel was so damn bloated, and where I'd gone so wrong, I realized that the problem was me. The problem was the tidy little boxes I'd tried to dump my scenes in when I first wrote them, the plot one and the character one, and how I'd assumed they were separate.

And then I realized something so obvious that I'd never even noticed it until I slowed myself down and forced myself to see it. The thing I loved most about all those slow burning character scenes? It was plot. Because plot is made of characters. Plot is characters making decisions and taking risks and and fighting and failing. Plot is the desire to stay home in your hobbit hole even as you leave it behind. It's the battle against Voldemort; it's the battle against yourself. It's the movement forwards, the verb carrying the sentence from one place to the next. It's the transformation from one state to another. It's both gale force wind and gentle breeze. It's both deafening and quiet. It's movement, and it's there. And it's necessary, but it doesn't have to be ugly. It can be beautiful too.

How do you define plot?

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I like that - "running passionately on the spot." This is a great post, thank you!

  2. I think that plot confounds a lot of people. The funny thing is that I suspect that people who like writing action scenes sometimes see that as juxtaposed against "plot, where characters have to talk and stuff before you can get to the next swordfight."


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