Building a Plot of Variable Depth

Photobucket Yes, you read that right, depth. There are lots of ways to describe the various moments of a plot as it develops, but I think in images, and when I think of plot, I see it in spatial terms regarding the depths of life it plumbs at different moments along the way.

To me, there are shallow days and deep days. Shallow days are those that tick on along in ordinary moments, almost on autopilot, never delving below the surface of the daily events. Deeper days are those where all the roiling scary elements beneath the surface of everyday life make themselves evident and inescapable.  Using both kinds of experience gives a story a balanced pace that provides both necessary pauses and essential tension-filled direction.

Shallow days are those where the effort is put into getting through, doing what needs to be done, keeping on course–for example, getting the four-year-old to do what she doesn’t want to do, trying to get work done at the job, trying to eke out some small window of time for relaxation or reading.  Shallow days move quickly, inevitably, and almost unconsciously forward. They draw the reader on by setting expectations, but often hint that something is about to change.

Change happens on the deeper days, when all the ordinary comes to a screeching halt and a deeper consideration of life is inescapable–for example, being at odds with someone close, experiencing a sudden traumatic event or marvelous moment. These are the experiences where everyday life has to be reconsidered and eventually reconfigured. That change does not come without resistance, and it often comes with extensive emotional drain. Deep days feel overwhelming, they encourage different paths of thought, and eventually, they usually even out into another version of shallow–a new routine to be followed, a new direction to be pursued.

Both kinds of day are essential to plotting a novel—shallow moments drive the story on through a regular sequence of events that propel a protagonist forward, ever forward. Deep moments put up a big roadblock and require the protagonist to reestablish the purpose and direction of that forward movement. The best novels, to me, are those that incorporate both kinds of moment, but use them to their own essential purpose.

The shallow moments create the trajectory, they help us understand who the protagonist is, the decisions which structured his or her existence and goals. Shallow moments show what normal life is, how it unfolds, how it carries the protagonist forward, sometimes without much thought, and yet they also reveal how each small ordinary decision defines as well as limits a character. The best writing about such shallow moments pulls the reader in and along by revealing the details that make the every day seem not so, well, everyday. Those are the moments that hint at and set up the tense expectation that things below the surface are not so calm, and that they are building to a crisis.

The deeper moments help the reader understand how a protagonist changes. The best writing about these deeper moments moves more slowly through the critical moments of the day, examining how much strength (depth of character, physical endurance, selflessness) it takes to make a change, and revealing the dire costs of that change (moral compromises, philosophical disjunction, physical pain, emotional trauma). The protagonist has to reconsider the trajectory of life and refine it to suit a new goal. That involves intense personal turmoil that displays itself on the interior as well as exterior.

Alternating between shallow and deep moments in a character’s life or story arc  provides the reader with a trajectory that is neither always emotionally draining, nor endlessly breathless with events, but always alternating between the two.

Picture from http://www.watercolorpainting.com/brush_exercise_thickthin.htm

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About Jeanne Kisacky

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.

Comments

  1. says

    I just completed my first Dean Koontz novel. I was trying to intentionally read and dissect it for its best-selling attributes, but doggone, I kept getting sucked into the story instead of studying technique.

    He implemented the deep-shallow plotting exceptionally well. In this case, it also modulated the tension expertly. Because the book had a paranormal/horror element, if it had stayed in the deep zone continually, it almost would have been too much. The shallow moments kept it lighter, relieved a bit of the tension until– wham– the next deep wave.

    Great plot technique to be aware of. Thanks for pointing it out.
    Julie´s last blog post ..Stephen King Wants My Heart

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Julie-I have a hard time ‘studying’ the well plotted books because they do suck you in so easily. But they are the best ones to emulate. Glad you found this post useful in your analysis.

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  2. says

    Jeanne, thanks for writing so incisively about an aspect of writing that is often overlooked. Your post underscores the importance of pacing. The real challenge comes in weaving together the shallow and deep scenes into a coherent piece that has forward momentum. The shallow scenes can be difficult to write in a way that interests the reader, but are vital to show the MC in her normal world before change happens. Well done, Jeanne.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..NaNo Update #4: I Made It! No, Wait. I Didn’t.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      CG – thank you for your generous comment. It’s funny how writing the pauses has become so difficult, because even when the plot has to give the reader a little breather something has to keep the reader wanting to move along. I think the shallow moments are much more difficult to do well than the deep moments, when the stakes are all clear and on the table.

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  3. says

    That is a very interesting concept – I previously thought of this in terms of ‘speed’ – faster moments and slower moments, time to act and time to breathe. But actually, this makes a lot more sense.
    MarinaSofia´s last blog post ..The Cynic

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      It definitely relates to pacing, but it’s not just about how fast things happen, but how many at once and how traumatic each is.

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  4. says

    The other night I went to see Cirque du Soleil. Almost all the acts followed the same pattern–the artist twirling one object (or leaping on one bar), then another, and then, somehow, another, finally, one more–until he or she had run out of limbs.

    And that’s the image I thought of after reading your post: one more seemingly impossible feat that the writer must consider and strive to achieve. And yet, it is those artists of the impossible that inspire us to jump to our feet to applaud.
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..The Many Hats of Elizabeth Anderson, Part 2

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Christina, actually I think most writing has shallow and deep moments whether or not it’s done consciously. I didn’t mean to add yet another object for you to have to keep in the air, but had hoped to reveal how the structure is there, and how if you’re conscious of it, you can really use it and make it work for you.

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  5. Sa'di says

    This is a reason I needed to revive my faith in my book.
    But there is a question I would like to ask: On which day should a novel begin?

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Excellent question and I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think you could start either way — one establishes the normal before it changes, the other establishes the intensity of the story at the outset. My initial thought was that starting on a shallow day, moments before the depths kick in, would be a potentially good place to start. It gives a brief sense of what normal is, which reveals how high the stakes are when the changes start to happen.
      But in the current reading world, where any ‘dull’ moment is a potential moment to stop reading, starting right in the depths might be an easier means of creating a strong opening hook. I think the critical element is making sure that whichever moment–shallow or deep–it still has tension and action.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      You know that’s an interesting observation. I think of my own life in terms of shallow days and deep days, but in this post I wasn’t trying to discuss the author’s state of mind, but the events occurring in the protagonist’s life and the protagonist’s experience of those events. Given that, you’re right, talking about shallow and deep writing in terms of ‘days’ is truly not helpful. Perhaps the better word would have been scenes, or even plot points. The goal was to think of the story’s main character as having a varying perception of reality–that there are days when a lot happens that is unusual/traumatic, and days when a lot happens that is normal/everyday. The normal tends to be experienced in a much different emotional state by the character than is the unusual. Expressing that difference can add a different level of pacing to the different parts of the story.

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  6. says

    Super timely post! I’m working on revisions of a novel right now, one that involves the characters going on a long journey that requires lots of walking. Most days are fairly uneventful, of course, but I have to include a few of them to show what is “normal” in this world. I’ve been thinking about them compared to the days full of action or plot-/life-altering moments, but hadn’t thought of formulating it in terms of depth! This will really help my thinking going forward. Thanks!
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Finding the humor, I guess

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