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Omega147

What is plot?

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----------------------------- "What is plot?" PART ONE ----------------------------- Okay, where to begin...? Plot is typically defined as the following: The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama. And then I say, "Yeah... I don't think so." At which point I get a lot of criticism and hear things like, "No, plot is this and this" and "Bob Denver should have been paid more," or whatever... hehe. No, instead I'm just going to give my view of plot in the following paragraphs. I would expect this to be a collaborative discussion where an overall agreement is made in the end as to what plot is (in some sense), benefiting the community as a whole. So I implore you, post your thoughts on the matter as you see fit, and with any luck, we'll all learn something along the way. That out of the way, let's dive into my brain, shall we? :) My most basic explanation of plot is as follows: Anything, everything, and nothing, which may or may not follow a pattern. Now, what does that mean? To me, it means nothing. Not the nothing as defined in my own explanation, but in the literal sense, as in, it has no relevance. Because for me, plot is not a chain of events leading up to something. Plot is not beginning, middle and end, nor is it conflict, climax, resolution. Plot is pointless... But then, why do I have such a pompous definition for plot? Or for that matter, how can plot mean nothing? Plot is the story, isn't it? To put things into a different light... When I sit down to write a story, plot is the last thing on my mind. The reason for this is because I think plot does not define a story, nor do I think it will tell what will happen, or why, or how, or when. All plot says in my mind is that something is happening or existing, of which that "something" may very well be nothing, or everything, and that isn't very helpful for me, which is why I say plot is meaningless. My true "plot" derives from everything inside and out of a story. No, I'm not going to say, "The characters define the story" or something like that, because that's not what I mean (although, character development does fall into the "everything" that I'm talking about). Wording is part of my "plot" idea--I call it an idea because that's what it is, something I'm unable to label exactly, but which I'm certain exists, and thus what I'm trying to explain to you fine lads and ladies. How a city looks and why it is that way, or how/why a scene is described are also pieces of my plot. Period, exclamation points and question marks are plot. My cell phone is plot. And basically what I'm trying to say is that my idea of plot is anything, everything, and nothing. And this is where the disease arises in you fellow readers, that need to say, "What?" or comment on something I've said. Because, It's all very quite contradicting, isn't it? Hehe. I understand, but please, hold your fingers. You're inside my brain still, remember? So please, keep all your hands and legs inside the vehicle at all times until the ride comes to a complete stop. Switching to example mode... Love is a typical tale which we are all familiar with, some more than others. But to the mildest extent, you've all probably seen a cheesy (or chocolaty?) chick-flick sometime in your life, yes? Let's review then, real quickly, the basic "plot" that most everyone would associate with such a movie. In general, the order of events is as such: #1 - We, the audience, are introduced to the main characters of the movie, which are the Guy and the Gal. #2 - Guy and Gal, who have never met or ever been in a serious relationship (before or with each other), get into a somewhat serious relationship (aka, love at first sight). #3 - Guy and Gal are happy. :) #4 - Oh no! Guy does something weird/stupid and lies about it to Gal in order to avoid something or other. #5 - Gal discovers the "oh uh"/lie of Guy's before Guy could tell her, and Gal flees in tears and anger. #6 - Guy says he's sorry, and Gal eventually comes around and accepts Guy back into her life, at which point some lovin' happens. Usually that's how they go. Another common one involves a second gal who knows Guy and is jealous of Guy's and Gal's relationship, but then in the end Guy sees that he doesn't like Gal after all and goes to be with the second gal. But, let's just stick to the steps I've set out above. The plot of the love story above is very generic, and predictable, and it follows a somewhat logical pattern. So here we ask ourselves, "Is there anything wrong with this plot?" In a technical sense, not really; the plot "works," and people can kind of relate to it. But, I need to explain my view on plot, and my view says that the above defined points do not define a plot at all. Here's the first step in what I'm trying to say: I'm going to take plot point #6 above and replace it. Here's the new version: #6 – Guy says he's sorry, and Gal eventually comes around and accepts Guy back into her life, at which point, right as they are about to kiss on some street corner, a drunk driver veers off the road and hits Guy and/or Gal, maybe killing one or both of them. I could just have easily have said that the Gal changes her mind at the last moment, slaps Guy, and leaves him forever for lying to him, but I chose the drunk driver for reasons I'll explain in a bit, the first reason being that although it's not a very happy ending, even though it's quite random, even though it falls out of the pattern of the story and makes no real logical sense, it is still possible (p1). And then the disease returns. Heh. The need to comment, it burns in your hands... :P Just... a little... bit... further... Actually, it's a long ways, but if you want, feel free to make this into a game, seeing how long you can go before you absolutely have to say something. :) Now, I chose the drunk driver for a few reasons, the first of which I already mentioned. The second reason is, what would be so different about that ending instead of the one where they stayed alive and didn't get hit by a freak accident? The movie would still end at (or around) that point, would it not? What would be so different? If you boil it down to its simplest interpretation... "something happens" (from the original #6 plot point) which does not equal "something happens" (from the revised #6) (or vice versa), after which the show ends. The biggest difference between the two endings is the impact that they have on the audience. One is about love, the other is about death. And that... is the second thing I'm trying to say about my sense of plot; plot isn't about why, it's about what's received by the reader (p2). Meaning, what does the reader see? Because, what good is plot when a reader doesn't see it? And in my view of plot, a reader doesn't ever see plot, they see everything else instead. That is what they then call "plot," attaching to it patterns and the likes, but in actuality they're seeing the other plot which I'm still trying to put into words. The idea is a plot which defines the plot, and then so much more. ----------------------------- "What is plot?" PART TWO ----------------------------- The next point about my view of plot is a rather difficult one to make, but it is perhaps the biggest part of my idea. So if you understand what follows, then I've successfully conveyed my thoughts. Plot exists before it is written or encountered (p3). Meaning, even if you have an intended set of events or a desired outcome all planned out for whatever you're writing, and you follow that to the T, another plot will have emerged for the reader at least by the time they reach the end of the story. This relates back with point p2 (above). Returning to the love plotline outlined in part one, let's run through it step by step, as readers/viewers (not writers), and see what we run into. Point number one is rather simple to see. The characters are introduced, giving us a general view of who we'll be learning about for the next hour and a half. Guy is usually somebody a bit lonely, maybe has a sensitive side, and isn't really noticed much around school/work. When we see Guy's friends, we learn that Guy has been thinking about love and whatnot, and subtle hints give way to his jealousy of his friends for their interactions with the opposite sex. Poor Guy. Then the movie changes scenes to show us Gal. Gal is often the opposite of Guy, meaning she's either popular, or pretty, or just has a great life. Because of Gal's status, she undoubtedly already has a boyfriend, which is generally the most popular guy around (Football Captain is a common one). And even though Gal's boyfriend is kind of a jerk, she gets by because she still has some slim hope for him in that he'll turn around and they'll live happily ever after. End point number one. Point number two comes quickly into the film. Guy is going somewhere, maybe to work/class or to the grocery store, or doing some other loner activity, when along comes Gal with/without Hunky Hank (her boyfriend), and Guy and Gal either bump into each other (often times physically, and Gal drops her books or something) or they just pass each other, at which point Guy says/does something to get Gal's attention--this upsets Hunky Hank, of course, if he's there, and he later becomes an obstacle for Guy. Then sooner or later, another twenty minutes into the show or so, Guy asks Gal out, and she accepts, either because she wants to prove a point to Hunky Hank or because she's genuinely interested in Guy. End point number two. Point number three is somewhat brief. Guy and Gal enjoy their newfound relationship by doing all sorts of activities. They go ice skating, to a carnival, they play in the park, laugh a bunch, share a romantic moment or two, and "yadda yadda yadda, I'm really tired today." End point number three. Okay, at this point, what plot have we discovered so far? What is the viewer (us) thinking right now? By this time into the show, the viewer has made two assumptions, the first of which is that, based upon the relationship and other looming events, the couple will break up at some point. The second assumption is that they will get back together in the end. This sounds a lot like what points four through six will describe, doesn't it? The reason those assumptions are made, though, is because the viewer is expecting two things to occur in the plot: conflict and resolution, the resolution of which they hope to be a happy ending. Those pre-plot thoughts sort of begin to describe my view on this part of plot (point p3). Running through the rest of the love storyline won't tell much more about my view, but I haven't fully displayed point p3 yet. In order to do that, I'll need to create another example. Let's say we want to write a new story based in the ever-so-popular realm of a typical D&D world. I'm talkin' about elves, dwarfs, and bears (*someone says, "oh my!"* ... hehe), and that somewhat medieval setting we're all familiar with, where there's magic and some uber-evil bad guy who wants to take over the known world. The first thing to establish, as a writer, is usually what we're going to write about, and why. Well, as already stated, there's a major evil force somewhere out in the world trying to turn everyone else into slaves, so let's use that as a starting point. There's a bad guy, which means we're going to need a good guy or gal, our "hero," to combat the bad guy. We can establish at this point one event, which is the ultimate demise of the bad guy, the "final battle" as it's commonly referred, because if nobody fights the bad guy, the bad guy will win and then the book will end in a world run by evil. Not saying there's anything wrong with that ending, just that logically we know someone will oppose this global domination and thus will attempt to destroy the bad guy. And that is essentially what we're writing about; an epic battle of good vs. evil. Then, the reason why we're writing this story, we'll say, is because we like the realm of D&D/LOTR and we think that we can contribute something to the community by telling the story in our own, unique style, and do it better than what's already been written. It's not much of a reason, but people have written books on less motivation. Okay, we have what and why. Now for detail... Here, we create characters, locations, races (if more are needed), history, etc. until we have a good layout of who/what is in the world and how it came about to be in its present state. Assuming we have all that and any other prerequisites out of the way, we're now ready to move onto plot, as it is defined in its general sense (the pattern of events in a story). We touch on a small example of point p3 here in that we can already say a great deal about what the plot will encompass. We may not see it at the time we're writing this story, because we're too preoccupied with more important matters, but the plot for this story has already been set down. Are you following me on this, and do you see why plot is already there? It's there because we are human, and it's there because we are influenced by everything around us. In other words, plot exists before it is written or encountered because, as writers and readers, we have preconceptions, judgments and inbred predictabilities, which are influenced by anything, everything, and nothing around us. To see that in action from the reader's perspective, let's jump ahead a year where we've written our D&D-esque book/story, published it, and some stray reader (I'll say it's a he for the sake of not having to write "he/she" all the time) has decided to give our tale a try. He begins by diving into a realm which we have so painstakingly spent hours upon hours detailing and filling with some sense of believability. He comes across different characters, towns and taverns until eventually he reads about the great evil lurking about in the world and how it must be stopped, or else... Right here is where it happens. It happens before that, too, but sticking to this moment, the reader has in his mind the idea of plot which I'm trying to bring out into words. The reader has a notion, however slim or far-fetched, of what he thinks is going to happen in the story, a notion that, regardless of whether or not it is correct, the reader sees as plot. And that, that idea of plot, is a big part of what I'm talking about. *Phew* ... Part two out of the way. There's more that I would still like to say about all this, such as a few more points I think could contribute to the discussion along with a summary of those points, but I hope I'm at least starting to make some sense here. If not, then I'll just have to try harder in the next installment. For now, though, read through that, maybe re-read part one, and then start to decide for yourself what you see as plot. Again, my view is nothing more than an opinion, but I do hope to enlighten all of you, so to speak, as to what plot could be. [Edited by - Omega147 on March 5, 2006 5:15:19 PM]

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Plot is what game designers do for fun when they aren't designing games. [grin] (hhos)

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Okay, other than my one little comment I politely waited for part two and read it all before writing this response. Also since you're read my attempts at defining plot and its structure and function I won't bother to repeat them here, but instead will just ask questions about your post and thoughts.

1) I am dubious about throwing out all established definitions of plot, but I would give it a chance if you actually present a new definition. But as it stands you seem to be unable to define it clearly. I hope your English papers are more organized than this, you would get major points off for not having a clear thesis/conclusion statement. [wink] So, if you can, could you clearly state your definition of plot?

2) Where do theme and teleology come into all this, especially the part about the pre-existence of plot?

3) If plots pre-exist, how many are there, how can you tell whether something is or is not one of these pre-existing plots?

4) If you were asked to create a detailed plot outline for a movie, video game, or novel, what process would you go through to decide what to put in the plot outline?

[Edited by - sunandshadow on March 6, 2006 12:46:15 AM]

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Simply put: plot is simply imagination. Whatever you imagine, that is plot.

There is a difference between plot and composition. Both things are not the same. Composition is simply how the story is structured on paper but the plot is the story.

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Here's a thought: the word plot's other definitions are "the line described by a mathematical equation" and "a sneaky plan generally political in nature, often involving persuasion, blackmail, legal technicalities, kidnapping, and/or assasination." So when trying to define what plot means in terms of fiction, perhaps we should be guided by the word's base meaning of 'a shape or plan'. So a story's plot would be the shape or plan of that story.

EDIT: Another thought - in Aristotle's _Poetics_ he says the worst stories are those where "episodes follow one another in a way which is neither probable nor necessary." So by extrapolation plot could be the pattern of probability and necessity lnking the episodes in a good story.

[Edited by - sunandshadow on March 9, 2006 12:30:53 AM]

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since SunandShadow is describing example one as "two story-arcs" and hinting that Plot can be seen as a shape, maybe Plot, in terms of fiction, can be defined as "the overall shape of the sum of the story-arcs"? (doesn't that remind of the join-the-dots games?)

This definition doesn't really suit my taste, personally, but I think it allows for some leeway in interpretation.

Plot cannot be reduced to "imagination", because it clearly is something of a different nature.

And to answer SunandShadow, I think that either I misunderstood your last statement, or it was badly worded, because "the pattern of probability and necessity" doesn't really make sense, to me. Indeed, a shape is an overall design, and you can probably weed out what seems odd on your shape because YOU have learned to recognize the shapes. It means that usually, some person who has been too much to the movies can reliably predict the ending of the movie. BUt I'm not sure said persons could give you a definition of Plot. They would probably be able to identify a BAD plot on sight, on the other hand.

SO what does this mean?

It probably mean that although two people won't agree on a definition of Plot, you WILL find at least two people agreeing on wether a Plot is good or bad.

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Original post by Fournicolas
And to answer SunandShadow, I think that either I misunderstood your last statement, or it was badly worded, because "the pattern of probability and necessity" doesn't really make sense, to me.


Oh sorry, I understood what the quote meant because I read the Poetics and remembered the context, but I can see how it would be confusing all by itself. My bad. I'll explain: Aristotle was talking about the logical relationships there should be between the various event which happen in a story. Most literary theorists agree that events in a story are related in two different ways: by causality (what Aristotle calls probability) and by teleology (what Aristotle calls necessity).

Causality is regular old cause and effect - if a character drinks poision we expect them to die, and if they don't there better be a darn good reason. If one character insults another we expect the second character to react to the insult in some likely way, not in some random way like by turning into a penguin or deciding to go on safari in Africa.

Teleology is a bit more complicated, and is related to the idea of unity. The idea is that a story should be composed of only those events necessary to tell the story (or explore the theme, depending on who you ask). So a plot should NOT contain, quoting from the original post, any event that "falls out of the pattern of the story and makes no real logical sense".

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Original post by sunandshadow
Here's a thought: the word plot's other definitions are "the line described by a mathematical equation" and "a sneaky plan generally political in nature, often involving persuasion, blackmail, legal technicalities, kidnapping, and/or assasination."


And plot aslo can mean a area as in: 'plot of ground' although that may not have anything to do with this topic...

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Original post by Servant of the Lord
And plot aslo can mean a area as in: 'plot of ground' although that may not have anything to do with this topic...

Area under the curve/surface proscribed the the narrative arcs when graphed as tension over time?

Here's my meta-question: What profit, exactly, lies in arriving at a rigid definition of "plot"? Writers seem to have done okay for the past couple thousand years without one... Will having a precise definition enable me to churn out mathematically variated regurgitations on a theme and thus make a pile of money by delivering "guaranteed hits" because they "hit on all the appropriate emotional cues in moments of maximum probability and necessity, thus never violating the raders'/viewers' suspension of disbelief"?

I stopped reading the OP about half-way into "part one" and skimmed the rest - and now he plans to return with a part three! Yay! More aimless and poorly structured rambling that isn't quite sure about its objective. Which would be fine if it was entertaining, but it's not. Why not write a story about a would-be author who is struggling to come to grips with the crux of his story, so we could observe the machinations and the internal dialog and it would have a purpose in terms of his development?

I know. I'm not being supportive. I apologize. But readers and viewers don't really care what the meaning of plot is, and, as I mentioned earlier, writers have been doing fine without a concrete reference for millenia so they probably don't care either. What everyone does care about is a good story. And since, as someone argued earlier, plot is the story, perhaps the ultimate question is this: what makes for a good plot?

sunandshadow, quoting Aristotle, asserts that a good story is one that maximizes the probability/plausibility/necessity for a change or development (in effect, one that does not shatter suspension of disbelief). That's a start. Then again, Aristotle allegedly said something to the effect of "characters are nothing," which is a pretty bone-headed thing to say...

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Original post by Oluseyi
Here's my meta-question: What profit, exactly, lies in arriving at a rigid definition of "plot"? Writers seem to have done okay for the past couple thousand years without one... Will having a precise definition enable me to churn out mathematically variated regurgitations on a theme and thus make a pile of money by delivering "guaranteed hits" because they "hit on all the appropriate emotional cues in moments of maximum probability and necessity, thus never violating the raders'/viewers' suspension of disbelief"?


Well, since you're ranting I'm going to rant back. [wink]

Actually plotting is widely regarded as one of the most difficult aspects of writing. Nobody cared about it the past couple thousand years because nobody cared about any kind of theory of how to produce art because there was a lot less cultural emphasis on introspection and analysis and, yes, likelihood of commercial success of art. But then in the past hundred years somebody came up with the idea "form follows function". People realized that a house is a machine for living, a story is a machine for conveying memes, and averything should be designed to most effeciently and effectively carry out its purpose. This philosophy has almost been lost again in the sea of bullshit which is postmodernism, but there are still serious scholars in every field who want to truly understand their medium and craft.

So my personal motive for wanting a rigid definition of plot is that I believe I would be a better writer if I understood the form and function of plot better. Relatedly, I believe that clear definitions are essential for clear thinking and writing and wish-washy definitions cripple the person who is trying to use them to think and communicate. Would a programmer have any business using classes and structs if he couldn't even tell you what they were? No, and no one has any business calling themself a prefessional writer if they don't understand the plots, characters, and stories they are creating.

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Original post by Sneftel
Plot is what game designers do for fun when they aren't designing games. [grin] (hhos)


ouch. you beat me to it. [lol]

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Original post by sunandshadow
Actually plotting is widely regarded as one of the most difficult aspects of writing. Nobody cared about it the past couple thousand years because nobody cared about any kind of theory of how to produce art because there was a lot less cultural emphasis on introspection and analysis and, yes, likelihood of commercial success of art. But then in the past hundred years somebody came up with the idea "form follows function". People realized that a house is a machine for living, a story is a machine for conveying memes, and averything should be designed to most effeciently and effectively carry out its purpose. This philosophy has almost been lost again in the sea of bullshit which is postmodernism, but there are still serious scholars in every field who want to truly understand their medium and craft.

So my personal motive for wanting a rigid definition of plot is that I believe I would be a better writer if I understood the form and function of plot better. Relatedly, I believe that clear definitions are essential for clear thinking and writing and wish-washy definitions cripple the person who is trying to use them to think and communicate. Would a programmer have any business using classes and structs if he couldn't even tell you what they were? No, and no one has any business calling themself a prefessional writer if they don't understand the plots, characters, and stories they are creating.

Your analogies puzzle me; by your reasoning, a programmer shouldn't use a construct if he doesn't possess a rigid definition of it. Most people programming on this site couldn't actually define an iterator, but sure can use one. I guess they're in violation.

Programming, at the end of the day, is a craft, not a science. Scientists need very precise definitions, because they are interested in the investigation of truth and relationships between truths. Programmers are interested in the application of principles to solve problems. Their careers inscribe a growing familiarity with an ever-increasing number of design patterns - tested and proven methods for solving various types of problems (the term comes from architecture, so don't think of it as a "programmer thing").

I think writing is the same way. I think that the more that you write, the more you observe situations with the intention to write about them, the more you investigate and burrow deeply in search of connections, the more you find yourself taking advantage of devices that you find to have common properties. In essence, you discover and/or familiarize yourself with "design patterns" for the construction and delivery of plot.

In his early days, Foucault identified with modernism, but as he matured he rejected the label and sought to avoid classification. It's an interesting argument. Rigid definitions of fluid concepts promote stagnation: you begin to think you know all there is to know about the concept, you distill it to a set of precepts and leave the real thinking to obscure academic theorists.

You stated that writing is a craft. No craft is perfected by mere theory. No amount of physics and "woodwork technology" will supplant the experience gained by repeatedly carving different types of objects from different types of wood. No amount of computer science - theory of computation, computability, predicate logic, software architecture and design - replaces actual experience writing, deploying, debugging, maintaining and cursing frantically ([smile])at systems, and learning from all the preceding what is not a good idea for the second iteration.

In similar vein, no amount of introspective theorizing about the nature of plot will replace writing stories and learning, in the process, the keys to plotting. For all his theorizing, Aristotle (and Plato, and Socrates, while we're at it) never wrote a story worth reading. And Homer (or the Bard) never set forth a categorical analysis of his art. Truffaut and Godard may have been critics and theorists, but their films don't exactly reverberate with the public, either.

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On the contrary, I believe that a craft is halfway between an art and a science, and once can only truly master a craft by applying BOTH artistic and scientific techniques to studying and practicing that craft. Theory is not a cause of stagnation, it is the source of innovation. I never said I was trying to replace practice with theory, I'm trying to combine them. Experience can hone your technique, but you will still be doing nothing but copying what everyone else has already done because you can't innovate if you don't understand your tools and materials well enough to imagine what else might be done with them and how to do something you've never done before. Experience wothout theory is like hand-eye coordination without brains - a great description of a monkey, not a master craftsman.

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Tell to a REAL chef that he merely copies his brothers and masters, and you'll find yourself searching for your extremities...

Cooking is both a matter of knowing what your products are, are for, and can do in a plate, and a matter of experimenting, because only through experimenting can you find new applications to old recipes, or old copncepts. Penicilline was only discovered through an error in an experiment, but was further enquired... Raku was discovered through an error of manipulation, but was further enquired, refined, studied, and became an art in and of itself... Mostly, you do not innovate because you think you understand EVERYTHINK there is to understand about what you're doing. You innovate because you suddendly do something you had never thought about previously.

Painting is essentially the same. Kandinsky defined his style because of drops he let fall on the ground... Okay. Maybe Picasso defined his style because of his personal tastes. But many copied him. And Van Gogh had a style of his own. NOt many person can pride themselves on having understood Painting because they studied and compared Edvard Munch and Rembrandt.

Mostly, I believe you won't be able to define plot, nor will anyone. Plot is probably a dimension in and of itself, since in a canonical play, there is a supposed "unity of time, space and plot"...

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Master chefs have generally gone to culinary school and studied culinary theory. They absolutely have to understand the theory of preparing food which won't give anyone food poisioning. And you can bet creating a new color of Raku glaze is a heck of a lot easier if you understand chemistry.

The ironic thing here is that coming up with a definition of plot is not particularly my goal here, I already have my own definition of plot I'm pretty happy with. What I was hoping Omega might have some insight into is the more detailed level of plotting, the part that's like... social and psychological chemistry equations I guess. You know how there's an idea of moral calculus? I want a calculus of inter-human and intra-human interaction.

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As a matter of fact, and to make it short: NO, I didn't know there was a theory of moral calculus, and wouldn't DREAM of having a social interaction calculus...

Is there a theory of perfect pants-and-shirts-color-matching calculus? Just interested...

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Original post by Fournicolas
As a matter of fact, and to make it short: NO, I didn't know there was a theory of moral calculus, and wouldn't DREAM of having a social interaction calculus...

Is there a theory of perfect pants-and-shirts-color-matching calculus? Just interested...


Lol yes actually, there is this thing called color theory, there are several book about it in the art section of any bookstore. And if you go to an art supply store you can buy these handy little color wheels which are like the equivalent of a slide rule for color math. [lol]

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my my... Next thing you'll know, someone will come up with a theory excplaining the sale of books, and people will just write books to get the money predicted from said calculation...

SunandShadow, stop trying to establish this calculus RIGHT NOW!!! I want to keep the book economy the way it is... I find it nice and all...

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No, this isn't my post saying that the third part of my idea of plot is ready. I've been... lazy. Hehe. It's spring break, though, whaddya expect? :P

I'll try to get around to it this week. Seriously...

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