Thoughts on Ansen Dibell’s “Plot”

David | Sep 28, 2010 min read

One of the most challenging things I struggle with as both a writer of fiction and a student of literature (yeah, they always go together) is which tool to use when. I believe that while reading and writing are intricately related–you must be well-read to be well-written–they don’t use the same mental tools.

The term plot (my archenemy when it comes to writing) appears in both toolkits, and I think that is terribly confusing.

I believe that good stories almost invariable need a good plot. But I also believe that there’s a difference between plot as used in literary analysis and plot as used by writers. Plot as a complex tool of literary analysis does me little good as a writer. I don’t want an analysis of an end product, I want guidelines for creating something new.

Ansen Dibell shows us in Plot that she understands the need for this distinction. She opens chapter one with:

The common definition of plot is that it’s whatever happens in a story. That’s useful when talking about completed stories, but when we’re considering stories being written, it’s about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn’t tell you how to make one. (pg 5)

What she does is offer a clear working definition of plot and supplies relevant material to help any writer in the struggle to develop and create plots that work. “Cause and effect: that’s what makes plot.” (pg. 6)

Dibell provides a breakdown of plot in terms of cause and effect, and leads up to a list of four questions a writer can use to test a story idea, which I’ve dutifully tacked up on my bulliten board:

  1. Is it your story to tell?
  2. Is it too personal for readers to become involved with?
  3. Is it going somewhere?
  4. What’s at stake?

The rest of the chapters address various elements a writer should pay attention to when working on a story to help craft the plot: openings, point-of-view (POV), exposition, middles, scene building, melodrama, patterns, pacing, and endings. In all of her discussions, she provides excellent supporting examples, some from the original Star Wars trilogy, which I think takes her advice from academic to practical. I recommend the book to anyone interested in writing. Here are a few ways she helped me.

The chapter on POV, titled “Would You Trust A Viewpoint with Shifty Eyes?”, is particularly relevant to me. My thesis novel has a problem here, and it happened because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I shift between the viewpoints of… crap, I just added it up: three major characters and six minor characters. That’s nine viewpoints across 400 pages.

Dibell suggests sticking with a single POV, and tells us that, “A story with too many focuses can become a story with no focus at all.” (pg 12) I panicked, but not for long. She concedes that a writer may choose to use multiple POVs and provides practical advice to reduce reader distraction, such as building in connections, keeping things simple at the beginning, and never switching in the middle of a scene. But above all, she reminds us that it is the writer’s eyes that matter the most, that the writer must have a coherent vision of the story. Whew. I think I’m okay then.

I also found the chapter on melodrama enlightening. It made me realize that I often avoid melodrama in my scenes, tending more towards understatement and subtlety. But she tells us that melodrama is critical to creating a good plot:

Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle, the remarkable rather than the ordinary. (pg 81)

She calls it lightning, and she’s right. In fiction, particularly in genre fiction, readers look for the remarkable and a writer can’t fulfill that need by writing strictly in ordinary scenes. As writers we must break out from the ordinary and show the extraordinary, and what’s more, the writer must make it believable. Dibell provides guidance on tackling melodrama, which she embodies as a curse for example, and making it believable with two sets of techniques, the straightforward and the sleight-of-hand.

Straightforward (pg.84 - 89)

  1. Show that it works right away
  2. Show that the curse has worked in the recent past.
  3. Establish a reasonable character, and have him take the curse seriously.
  4. Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail.
  5. Use just one curse at a time (and don’t cross genres).
  6. Don’t undercut your curse.
  7. Especially at first, don’t talk about the curse yourself, in narrative summary.
  8. Don’t let the curse either take over, rendering the whole story weird and uninvolving, or become commonplace.

Sleight-of-hand (pg. 90 - 91)

  1. Introduce the melodramatic element by the back door in a scene ostensibly dealing with something else.
  2. Have one or two previews, or false alarms, before the real curse shows up.
  3. Have a character expecting something even more extraordinary, so that when the real curse comes, it’ll seem credible by comparison.
  4. Have a character expecting a smaller and more credible version of the thing you actually intend to spring on him.

She closes the chapter by suggesting that novel-length fiction should use multiple techniques throughout, which seems like a given to me. But she’s provided a practical list of tools that I can use to strengthen my current work, which deals with some pretty extraordinary events.

Other chapters of note for me were on patterns, and of course, coming to the end. Ending a story is always a struggle for me, I think in part because I’m afraid I didn’t say enough–which is a very bad fear for a writer to have–or maybe because I’m just not sure when I got there. She emphasis that we must stop at the end, and provides two “shapes” for endings: circular and linear. I won’t go into details on each, the names are pretty self-evident, but I suggest that anyone who struggles with coming to a stop as I do will benefit from her guidance.

I think I stated in my last post on a how-to book that I hate them. That’s still true–mostly. Dibell’s work on plot has given me hope, however, that there’s more how-to literature on writing out there that isn’t just a rehashing of the same old advice. It’s practical and refreshing, and though I found myself reluctant to get engaged in her book, in the end I did just that, and I feel that my writer’s toolbox has grown considerably for it.

If you want to write, and the idea of plotting makes you cringe, give this book a read.

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