Plot is a Four-Letter Word

4-letterWe’re so pleased to bring you today’s guest, Stuart Horwitz.  Founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture, Stuart has helped authors revise, polish and successfully publish their work for over 15 years, with clients who have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers and appear on shows like Oprah.  His new book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method (Perigee) explains how.  Welcome, Stuart!

Plot is a Four-Letter Word

When I work with writers, they all want to talk to me about their plot. “What is this plot you speak of?” I ask, and they say something like, “…you know, everything that happens…the important parts…the stuff that comes together and you know, means something.”

Right.. One thing can do all that? Sounds pretty complex to me. The word “plot” is singular, but these writers are using it to describe so many different elements of their story. That is why I think plot is a nonsense word, a naughty word. We don’t say it around my house.

The word you want instead is “series.”

A series, as I define it, is a narrative element that repeats and varies. A familiar element that your reader can track throughout your book.

A series can be a character. When you think about it, people do repeat from day to day. How they talk, how they look, what they believe in. It is the way your character repeats that earns him or her the praise of being “consistent” or the criticism that he or she has acted “out of character.” Getting to know someone through series is how a person becomes a character.

A series can be an object. Once an object’s identity is established through repetition we are ready for its variation: that object can be used, it can be stolen, it can age or fall apart, whatever is appropriate to communicate meaning. A series is how an object becomes a symbol.

A series can be a relationship: the repetitions and variations in the interactions between two people, their ups and downs. A series can be a location: the scene of the crime or a return to hallowed ground. A series can be a phrase that is repeated in a way that expresses the book’s theme.

How much variation, or change, occurs in each series is of course a matter of personal choice. Some characters may go through a change of heart so transformative, and the writer may portray it so well, that the reader undergoes a change along with the character, the empathic experience known as catharsis. A series can be central to the hero’s quest, or it can be something offhand yet revealing like the weather. Either way it is series which brings us into the reading experience in a unique way.

Let yourself repeat when you write. Let yourself harp endlessly on a subject matter until you get the message that actually this is what your book is about.

So we should get used to this word “series.” It probably seems obvious by now that your book would have more than one series. (By the way, the plural of series is “series.” Sorry about that.) Your efforts would not be complex enough without several of these nifty things, maybe 10 to 15. Otherwise you might just have a short story on your hands.

PhotobucketIf you do have several series then the real fun begins. When series interact and intersect, that’s where you create real emotional impact. In some cases, two series come together and things can never be the same. But first you have to find them.

This is, incidentally, one of the best reasons to not try to organize anything in your first draft. Let yourself repeat when you write. Let yourself harp endlessly on a subject matter until you get the message that actually this is what your book is about — this right here is going to be a series which repeats and varies — and which lets us know what you’re really talking about.

When you start connecting series with each other, when you start tying ropes together to make a knot, if you will, you might end up with a net that looks like what I think people mean when they say “plot.” But you didn’t get there by writing a plot. Such a thing is impossible, because a plot is something you achieve, rather than do; something you achieve like unity, or enlightenment.

About those things we can only hope. But while we’re hoping, we can attend to the detail of series.

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Comments

  1. says

    Very helpful post! Great point that a plot has many parts, and calling them something other than ‘plot piecesparts’ makes sense. However, in literature the word ‘series’ has a distinctly other meaning so I think that choice is confusing. Maybe ‘threads’ is more to the point? Branch? Plot meme? Create a new word for the concept and call it a pleme! Thanks for the early morning brain food!!

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  2. says

    This was extraordinarily helpful! Because I’ve always been more character-driven in my writing, I always felt I was at a disadvantage when it came to “plot” development. This post gives me lots and lots of hope that I, too, can achieve plot greatness through this “series” approach.

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    • says

      Hi L.M. — oh you definitely can, I can feel it! It really is just giving the structure some attention in a way that we normally give attention to the other techniques of writing, like dialogue and description. Knowing that it needs some focus and giving it that focus — the rest is (pretty) easy!!

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  3. says

    I’m a plotter, and I would DIE if I didn’t know where I was heading! I have to have an inkling of where I want my character to land. How he/she gets there, yes…that’s the twining of events — the series of movements, but without a rough idea of where I want to go? I’d have so many “little darlins,” I could hardly kill them all.

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    • says

      Yes Renee, I see what you’re saying! It would be disingenuous for me to say that when I sit down to write I start with nothing… But I don’t recommend starting with too much either, you know, that will choke the life out of what wants to come anew…

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  4. Jenn S. says

    Awesome book, awesome idea, awesome method. I have such a hard time with plot development and moving a plot forward, and this just makes so much sense. It really helps break down an impossible sort of task, which is how to make something interesting in a real way, as opposed to just flinging a bunch of whimsy and well-written scene-lets around. Every writer should give this a try, regardless of ability or experience.

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  5. says

    Hi Margaret! You make a very interesting point and I definitely experimented with threads and strands and other textile-based metaphors before settling on series. Series as in a series of events, or occurrences within a given set as in math. Each example of a series I call an “iteration” for the reason that series can be reiterated, which is at the juncture of repetition and variation. My only problem with series is that the plural is also series!

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  6. says

    Lovely! This post needs to be read by all those writers who can’t fathom using an outline that puts their story in a straight jacket before they can possibly know what’s important.

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  7. says

    Brilliant. And I’m proof that Stuart’s book architecture method works. I went to Stuart with an idea (maybe a so called plot), a title, and roughly 12,000 words for my memoir – my first book. I am a project manager by trade and, yet, my logical mind had no clue how to organize the project of writing my memoir. I assumed I had to know the beginning, middle, and end (the finished product, really) before I even started to write the book. I remember the exact day when I sat in Stuart’s office and he pointed to THE chart. The chart that displays the building blocks for constructing a book – scene, SERIES, theme. I trusted Stuart’s method and quickly learned to just write – write in scenes – generate the material. By the time I had written roughly 40,000 words, Stuart pointed to my theme. I kept writing in scenes, with a little more focus on the theme, and started to identify some SERIES. After I had written 90,000 words and all my scenes were written, I had the first draft of my memoir. Only then could we fully identify the SERIES – for better or worse, those key story elements that repeated in my life and supported my theme. For me, identifying my story’s SERIES, helped me connect the dots in my own life and revealed exactly what I wanted to communicate to my readers – all in service to my theme – my one theme. The best part? I had all the components (scenes, SERIES, theme) of my book and an organized plan to construct my second draft, third draft, and perhaps, bestseller!

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  8. says

    Yes…although I agree with your concept that the word “plot” may be found wanting when referring to all the intricacies that make up a book, “series” is indeed a confusing alternative, and, in my opinion, not a viable substitute for “plot.” Its other connotation in the literary world nixes that for me.

    Series describes a sequence of connected events expressed in chronological, spatial, or some other order to convey a similar subject or purpose.

    However, when describing behavior, or changes in behavior (due to variables the character/object has to confront), a writer must first set up a “pattern” of behavior for that character or object. I believe this is a more adequate term instead of “series.”

    Once a pattern has been established, the reader understands why the character behaves the way he/she does when facing the twists of life.

    When conflict or some other outside influence presents itself, the pattern either remains true to character, behaving as the reader would expect, or out-of-character, creating all sorts of delicious trouble to rectify. Plot points. Pattern points.

    That being said, when asked about the plot of my WIP, I give a synopsis. I think that’s what the person wants to know. As writers, we sometimes tend to complicate the simplicity of even the most innocent of questions.

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    • says

      Hi ML! I like your suggestion of “pattern”–my only fear is that it can refer as much to an overall picture which is unduly daunting in the same way as “plot,” and I don’t think patterns apply equally as well to objects, locations, and phrases the way series can. Food for thought! Thanks again for your response.

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  9. says

    Fabulous! I’m too inspired by this to write more in this comment, because I have to get back to my book, which is a series that’s chock-full of series! Thanks!

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    • says

      That’s what we love to hear, Brea! In fact, my book makes just that point — when you are inspired to write, go write!! This Book Architecture Method business is only to get you ready to write or write more! :)

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  10. says

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t, till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

    To communicate effectively, you need to use words as people understand them, not as whatever definition you feel like assigning to them. You can’t just change the lexicon a group of professionals uses to suit your personal tastes. You can’t redefine a common word like “series,” which among writers has a particular meaning, and expect everyone to “get used to” a different meaning entirely.

    Just because the word “plot” is often misused doesn’t mean it’s “naughty.” If people use it incorrectly, you just need to define it for them. The plot is the sequence of events in a story, nothing more or less. We already have a phrase for “everything that happens…the important parts…the stuff that comes together and you know, means something”; they’re called “narrative elements,” and plot is one of them. By “character series” you mean the narrative element “characterization,” and by “object series” you mean the narrative element “symbolism.” There’s no point in slapping new labels on them.

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    • says

      Hi T.K.! Well, I don’t know that series is a very commonly used word for writers… That’s why I think it was ripe to be, not exactly redefined, but brought up a level… By series do you mean several different volumes with the same characters? I don’t know that it is that confusing to use the word to refer to both things. Series is meant to be an umbrella term to describe the repetition and variation of all narrative elements so that we can see the unification of their evolution, either improvement or deterioration, in a way that helps us appreciate the structure that lies underneath–and work on that structure to our benefit! Thanks again for commenting!

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  11. says

    I usually find that my ‘plot’ is the first thing to come to me, followed by the characters and actions that help put the mest on the bones. I am finding more and more that it is really on a seco d draft when i develop my series and get to know my characters.

    Very interesting perspective, thank you.

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    • says

      Hi Michelle! That is often when series surface most, in te second draft–in fact paying attention to them at that point helps give you the momentum and the focus to tackle that third draft, at a time when you may be wondering what am I writing about again?… ;)

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  12. says

    I usually find that my ‘plot’ is the first thing to come to me, followed by the characters and their actions that help put the meat on the bones. I am finding more and more that it is really on a second draft when i develop my series and get to know my characters.

    Very interesting perspective, thank you.

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  13. says

    I was thinking along these lines while watching Les Mis. It’s lovely the way musical themes mirror the meeting again of characters, the search for identity, etc. So much of story is visiting and re-visiting, while seeing change along the way. Adding a musical element certainly enriches things.

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    • says

      Hi Caroline, wonderful example! It is those echoes that really give the reader/viewer an idea of unity, like te creator is “home” and they are in good hands… It’s funny, when you really look for series you see them everywhere: in musicals, in commercials, in children’s books…

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  14. says

    Thank you for this! It is very freeing. Before I started learning to write, I had always thought of plotting as huddling with my bff’s to come up with some dirty rotten little scheme to play a trick on someone.

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    • says

      Exactly, Janie! Better to let te first draft come out however it will and then use a method like the Book Architecture Method to look into what you have created, and where you are trying to go! Good luck to you!!

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  15. Elizabeth de Veer says

    So interesting because I usually think of plot as the events that happen in a book or movie, and all the other things you name kind of get hung on that – the plot like a framework or a big plain wooden sculpture that someone uses as a base for chicken wire and paper mache to create a deeper effect. I like the idea of series too though, but I think I need to get used to that since Mrs. Benefield used to hammer the concept into our heads in 3rd grade.

    Clearly, I need this book!

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    • says

      Yes, Elizabeth, Mrs. Benefield wasn’t the only one torturing her small charges! Believe me when I tell you that series will make your to-do list so much clearer than plot…

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  16. says

    Thank you!
    As I (get the gumption to) revise my latest book, this will help so much! The idea of tracking series through the book is so much less intimidating and more freeing than, “fixing the plot.”
    Thanks again!

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    • says

      Great news, Laura! It really is fun to track your series and then time their interactions and intersections with each other… It doesn’t require knowledge of calculus either ;) just the belief that you can help your work by assessing it sometimes, as that you won’t ruin it by doing so!

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  17. says

    Very interesting take the writing process. While I agree with some of the other posts here that the semantic argument of plot vs. series is possibly confusing or a bit of a stretch, the concept is thought provoking and thus worthwhile to consider. On the whole, though, I think this approach would appeal much more to the right brain author who can get hung up on structure and thus impede their ability to free flow their creativity. Left brain authors, on the other hand, need structure or at least a destination before they can lay into developing their “series.” All that said, I do appreciate such a different way of thinking about the writing process.

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    • says

      Hi Jack– I agree with your comments here. I think there is a time and a place for structural work– at least once during a project to be sure, but not as a crutch to avoid doing te work of creative exploration!

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  18. says

    I am a die-hard, obsessive plotter. Love me some plot. Plot, plot, plot.

    (Sorry. As many here can attest, I am a fan of using four letter words, as well. ;) )

    I disagree with the thought that “plot” can’t encompass a number of different elements, any more than the term “plan” (also singular) can’t. A good plan does and should encompass different, often varied, elements. Essentially, a “plot” is just a “plan.” (Although “Plot” does sound like it’s a plan wearing a sinister mustache. Bwa-ha-ha!)

    To me, a solid plot is rooted in realistic and well-conceived characters, and showcases an arc: the development and growth of a protagonist through a series of increasing conflict to a desired goal. I write and adore genre fiction; in that field, there’s a high premium placed on getting this across in a way that’s both recognizable and refreshing. At times, it can seem more engineering than art… but, to me, the artistry is always there.

    That said, I have heard and respect that people often find the structure of “plotting” constraining at best and distasteful at worst. I think we’ve all got different processes, and need to find what’s best for ourselves.

    I think your approach will resonate with a lot of writers. Good luck with your book!

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  19. says

    Thanks, Cathy! I agree that whatever we call it… readers need it — a good structure with suspense, surprise and shock, withholding information and unanswered questions… these are the things that engage us on a physiological level, that provide the underpinning for our emotional pay-offs and aha moments!

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  20. says

    A plot is where you bury someone or where someone buries you. I dig “series.” If plot is (also) the sequence of events, and every event has already happened infinite times and will continue to happen infinite times, “series” seems to fit just right into my view of the universe. Thanks!

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  21. says

    Where were you when I was writing my first draft?! Lord, I muddled and muddled until all I had…was a puddle. Now you’ve got me thinking so much about series in my own WIP and if I even have one.

    Great post, Stu and thanks for introducing me to a new four-letter word. :)

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    • says

      Oh, don’t worry, Hallie — I’m sure you have plenty of series! It’s training your eyes to spot them, that’s the trick — then once you see them you can fairly easy chart their iterations, and get one series to interact with another… which is where the real fun begins! Good luck!!

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  22. says

    Wow, lots to think about here. Back in the days when I was just starting to write, it felt most natural to me to work the way you suggest, letting the material pour out and then figuring out later how to structure it, “series” it, “scene” it, etc. (Though I didn’t think of it in those terms.) Now, when new ideas come to me, my inner editor hops directly to mapping out the series / scenes / structure and / or plot before I’ve even put a word down on the page. Which then makes for a very slow, laborious process when I do start putting words to paper, completely devoid of just letting the material flow — which is something I really regret. So I wonder: how can I un-train my mind highly structured, Cartesian mind and keep it from getting in the way of the creative process?

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  23. says

    Haha, great question, Sharon! It’s an ongoing struggle, for sure, one that is recognized by many traditions of thought, including my favorite Zen Buddhism: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” Maybe have a look at Shunryu Suzuki’s book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”? I’m serious!

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  24. says

    I tried so many times to write without an outline and it just doesn’t work for me. I’d rather spend a few days planning it all, and then let the imagination free in small bursts. In other words, I kinda know what happens here, but I will allow it to go “outside of the box” and re-arrange the plan for the other parts based on what comes out.

    Thank you for this post!

    Iulian

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  25. says

    Exactly, Iulian — the plan evolves just as the content evolves… which is why series is so effective because it is much easier to adjust individual series than having to worry about the overall “plot” — clunk thing… :) Thanks for checking in!

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