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defining plot

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okay, since in the other thread people are disagreeing about what plot is, why don''t we put all our conflicting definitions in this thread and see if we can combine them or compromise somehow. So, everybody please tell us, "What is your definition of ''plot''?"

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What is a plot? (Definition compiled from my gamedev posts over the years, including my paper on narratology. Yes it''s long. )

The plot is the pattern (read: grammar) that is visible when you look at all the events that occurred during play (or the course of the book). If there is no pattern to these events, the game cannot have been meaningful - why did the player do what he/she did? If the player is not responding in a human way to a human situation, the game has no meaning in the larger context of human society. Chaos is fundamentally unacceptable to the human mind. A bad plot devalues all the player''s actions and intellectual/emotional reactions.

So, there has to be a pattern. What kind of pattern? The ideas that are combined to make a plot must be conceptually linked to each other with an internal time-order (story chronology) in a non-deterministic causal and teleological structure.

TIME - plot is where stories get their 4-th dimensional aspect from, the thing that makes them more complex than, say, a painting. Time is the dimension in which plot events are organized according to

1) Logical causality (cause and effect)

and 2) Teleology (things happen to cause a climax and resolution, otherwise known as fate or destiny.) This is expressed as a pattern of tension (suspense) over time. Plot must be non-deterministic because otherwise there would be no suspense, and suspense is a necessary part of teleological structure, which is the organizing principle of the human narrative instict, which is the mental faculty humans use to create both sentences and stories.

There is a third, non-chronological way in which plot events must be organized:

3) Unity, or congruity. Unity of agent, subject, theme, and setting. This means simply that none of the agents or objects (the ''nouns'' of the story) which the plot events are carried out by and upon can clash with the others. A batch of related ''nouns'' is called a schema.

Looking at it from a less technical angle: Plot is change within the story over time. This change is caused by conflict, which is the difference between what the characters want and what they have. The change itself is the actions the characters take to overcome the obstacles to their desires, and any reactions that may occurr.

Thus, plot events may be of the following types:

1) Random physical event (e.g. an earthquake, a part breaking down in a spaceship) This happens because teleology or authorial fiat provides the motivation for it.

2) Character resolution to action (e.g. I vow to set foot on the Moon before I die).

or 3) Character reaction (e.g. he called me something unprintable so I fragged him)

The vast majority of plot events in the average story are this third type, character reactions. Big complicated chains of character reactions, like dropping a ping-pong ball into a box of loaded mousetraps with more ping-pong balls balanced on them. One common way of describing plot is that an initial incident destabalizes an equilibrium situation, then the discomfort of the imbalance increases until there is a crisis(climax) and a new equilibrium situation is reached (Kinda like sex ). This may be visually represented with a Freytag''s pyramid, a plot snake, a grammatical tree, or an (insert number here) act play structure. A complete iteration of this structure is a story arc, and every story must have at least one such arc, but may have more.

The most basic plot pattern for a story arc is:
1. An equlibrium state exists
2. Something (an accident, a crime, the passage of time) destabilizes the situation and creates a desire for change in at least one character
3. The character attempts to achieve the desire and is frustrated
4. Something changes - the desire may be achieved or rendered impossible, or the character''s desire may change
5. The logical consequences of this change happen
6. Characters react mentally and emotionally to change and consequences
7. A new equilibrium state is created and the next plot module starts from here at step 1.

Stories that start In Medias Res may skip the first few parts or present them as backstory or flashbacks. Steps 3 through 6 may sometimes repeat or loop.

Plot is the grammar of the story

During the past three decades psychologists and linguists worked to puzzle out the shape of the mental machinery that allows sentence generation and story generation. Noam Chomsky is credited with the formulation of the first transformational generative grammar, a “…system of rules capable of enumerating all and only the sentences of the language, and of assigning each sentence its correct structural description.” (Pavel 5). Thomas G. Pavel then demonstrated that:
“…a grammar which generates stories is subject to the same restrictions as grammars for natural-language sentences. Arguments similar to those proposed by Chomsky against regular and context-free grammars can be constructed in order to show that typically narrative phenomena cannot be accounted for by these varieties of formal grammars. Consequently, the grammar adopted here belongs to the family of transformational generative grammars.” (Pavel 15-16).

In speaking of stories, Pavel is talking about narrative constructions, defined thus:
“Narrative is the representation of at least two real or fictive events in a time sequence. The events must be related but neither can presuppose or entail the other. Narratology (the application of transformational generative grammatical patterns to narrative constructions) is the study of the form and functioning of narrative. … Narratology examines what all narratives have in common and in what ways they are allowed to differ.” (Prince 4-5).

Plots are inherently moral. In a game, each plot defines a "good person" as the one who can successfully complete it. Continuation is the most basic of in-game rewards; if you are rewarded you must have done the right thing=been good. Similarly, in a book the plot is often resolved by the punishment of the villians and the rewarding of the heroes.

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All right, here's my piece of the elephant:

Plot is the skeleton of a story. It generally begins at a point where there's a character who wants/needs something. Now, the "something" doesn't need to be a thing at all, and could also be a negation -- they might want love, or need to stop a mad scientist from blowing up the world, for example.

Whatever it is, the character proceeds to try to attain this goal. They may achieve some measure of success, but in some way they are thwarted. The goal may evolve, generally towards being more specific. (The character falls in love with someone, and seeks the love of that particular person. The mad scientist blows up an island, and many people die because the character couldn't stop her -- so he resolves to kill her.)

This can be repeated as necessary. They may make some progress, but they're thwarted again -- perhaps as a result of their own actions. (The character offends his love by his clumsy attempt to woo her. The character is arrested for attempted homicide, after trying to kill the mad scientist) This one-step-forward, two-steps-back process continues, and the situation grows increasing tense -- it seems more and more likely that the character cannot attain their goal.

And then they do. That's the climax -> resolution, as I usually label it. The point at which the obstacle(s) seem most insurmountable... and the character surmounts anyhow, by virtue of their courage, intelligence, inner strength, or whatever else they've got. No deus ex machina, no lucky breaks. After that, you've got some space to wrap up loose ends, cement the happy ending -- or mar it a bit, for verisimilitude's sake, if you prefer -- and generally wind things down, before dumping the reader back into reality.

So. That's a stylized drawing of a particular sort of plot-skeleton... one which I think is fairly common, and solid enough to build on. I make no claims as to its completeness or accuracy, nor my own expertise. If you're looking for the above, I recommend Writing the Breakout Novel ... which I may or may not be inadvertantly plagiarizing, thanks to my hazy memory.

"Sweet, peaceful eyelash spiders! Live in love by the ocean of my eyes!" - Jennifer Diane Reitz

[edited by - Logodae on February 17, 2004 12:51:28 AM]

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To put it simply.

Setting is where it happens.
Plot is what happens
Characters are who it happens to.
and the story is in the details.

Writer, Programer, Cook, I''m a Jack of all Trades
Current Design project
Chaos Factor Design Document

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I might say that a plot is introduction, conflict, climax, denoument. After all, that''s what my english teachers told me. I have those things in some of my own writings, but I haven''t always formed a relationship between these things. As such, I''d say such works don''t have a plot. I think it''s that relationship which is actually the plot. To create that relationship is to engage in story telling. If a person defines even the simplest of plot lines, they have told a story. As such, I think it''s easy to blur the line between story and plot.

I had written a lot more, but decided against posting it. A bunch of stuff (more personal than relavant) that basicly got me to the above conclusion.

(a little ot)
I''d like to take this oppertunity to say to Sunandshadow that I think you have enough of a plot outline for your story and that you should begin your storytelling. I think you''re looking for something that you don''t really need, don''t really want, or already have.

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Drawing on notes from a lecture by Norman Lear as the USC Cinema-Television MFA in screenwriting cirriculum, plot is it''s various definitions.

Plot in one sense is the area of ground, or footprint of a story. It is a plan sized for civil engineering. It is also what you excavate to bury every character in.

Plot is also what you contrive and connive to perpetrate upon the protagonistic forces: you plot against good. This is an act of prearrangment that unfolds ahead of the here and now complicating the here and now so everyone scurries actively to maintain the following definition of plot. There is little good in plotting, only good in characters.

Plot is the act of choosing a direction for the forward progress of a course of action or traveling to a destination. This is another way of saying that in good plotting, things always turn for the worst.

Thank you Norman, now back to our regularly scheduled scheming...


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