Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Plot Line of Your Life (an IWSG post)

We talk a lot about plot and plot arc in the creative writing class I teach. If there's just one thing I want them to come away with it's what a plot is. Not just that the plot is the story but what a plot actually is and how it works and develops within a story. We look at this a lot:
Well, not this, because this is not actually how I draw it. I draw it more like a simple roller coaster -- gradually up and, then, steeply down, returning to the same level upon which it started (because that makes more sense in my mind, I guess) -- in its basic form and, then, add in extra hills to show plot complications, and, well, this is where a drawing would come in handy, but I don't know how to draw that stuff and post it here for you to see. [Well, without actually drawing it and... oh never mind. I'm not doing that right now, but, maybe, at some point, I will.]

Anyway, as a writer, I can see my plot from the outside. I know where and how the story starts; I know where the plot gets tangled; I know where and how things go bad for my characters and how those things get resolved. I know where the climax is. The climax being the most important part. Well, the most important part other than the exposition and the rising action and the stuff at the end, which, sometimes, is just the climax since authors frequently lump their falling action/denouement into a "they lived happily ever after" sort of ending.

The thing to note here is that the characters, of course, can't "see" the climax. For one thing, they're only characters, but, if they weren't, they're within the story, and they can't see what's going on beyond what's actually happening in the moment. Authors, then, have to make sure that the characters are as true to the moment as possible. That means when bad things are happening, the characters have to behave as if those bad moments are all the moments, because they can't see the happy ending that's coming. Assuming that there is a happy ending coming, but most stories do have happy endings, so we're just going to assume that that's what's happening.

It can be kind of like this:

As the author, though, we have to push the characters along and keep them from actually getting stuck. Even when it looks like there is no hope left, that they have descended to the very depths and there is no way out, we have to find the motivation for them that will send them on their way, keep the story going, take them to their climax. Remember, we know what's coming.

And here's where things get a little backwards from how I usually do them. Usually, I will give some life example and turn it into a writing analogy, but I'm going the other direction this time. This is a writing example leading to a life analogy.

So here's the thing:
In our lives, we are like the characters in a book: we can't see our own climax. We don't know what's coming. Sometimes, people decide they hit their climax during high school and everything after that is just denouement. They don't try to achieve anything else, because they make the assumption that there's nothing that will ever be better in their future. Or, maybe, it's a wedding. Or, like Orson Welles, your very first completed project.

After Welles finished Citizen Kane, he said he would never make another movie as good, and he didn't. He was only 26. I have to wonder, now, if it was because he had decided that Kane was his climax. Maybe not, but our attitudes play such a huge role in what we do and how do it that it's really hard to know. Maybe, if he'd believed Kane was just the beginning of the great things he would accomplish, he would have made even greater movies. But this isn't really about Welles.

Sometimes, we end up in  those same kinds of depths that authors drop their characters into. Like it is with those characters, we can't see what's coming. We don't know what lies ahead. All we can see is the moment. It's important to realize that our climax is still on the way. Even if it's not, it's important to act as if it is, because acting as if we're still in our rising action can propel us higher. It can make a Citizen Kane moment merely a part of the rising action rather than sending us on a slow descent of falling action for the rest of our lives.

We don't know where our own climaxes are in the stories of our lives. We can't see it from the outside, and, until we die, that story isn't over yet. There is always the chance to achieve something greater, go farther, rise higher. It's only when we decide that we've got nothing left on the horizon that that becomes true. So, no matter how bad things get or how bad they seem, remember that there's still more to come. More rising action. More complications. But, somewhere ahead, a climax. A great moment, the great moment, of your life. Don't give up before you get there.

This post has been brought to you in part by the IWSG.


  1. Hi Andrew, Thanks for these wonderful tips. I am yet to post my installment.
    Keep inform

  2. Some very sound advice here, Andrew, and a pleasure to read. Thanks!

  3. Interesting thought!
    It's like people who give up when success is just around the corner because they can't see it coming.
    If the best is yet to come, I'm excited! Might be a rock star yet...

  4. Great stuff. I'm pretty sure I'm in the dip in the roller coaster. Funny, I've been in that dip since I was about 20.

    Wait, maybe that's just me. If I manage to get a literary equivalent of Citizen Kane out of me then you can bet that'll be my climax. I'm done after that. I wouldn't be able to handle the pressure of high expectations after that. At all.

  5. Thanks for the encouragement for both my real life challenges and those of my characters.

    I agree that life works like fiction in that respect. We never know what's coming but we can do the necessaries and get past each hurdle.

  6. I'd comment but my post on Tuesday involves this subject so I will just say I know where my climax was.

  7. This is one of my favorite posts from you, Andrew. The last paragraph really resonated with me. You're right, there's always more to come in our lives!

  8. This is a great read. As a writer, I completely understand what you are getting at and it's a good lesson to make sure our characters feel genuine in reactions and actions -- I think it takes skill to separate and make sure things don't get "stuck." I've gotten stuck and held off on a story because I didn't know where to go. Needed some perspective and time to keep going.

    And, on a personal level, this was a great post to read. You never know when the climax of your life is, so we should all keep going. It's never just "over." I never want to live like that, in some ways I have, and this served as a reminder. So, thank you. I know this wasn't intended for me, but it felt like I was meant to read this today. You are a very talented writer and your students are lucky to have you inspire them.

  9. I do like me some Citizen Kane. That's a great example to use too. I wonder how many of your readers have actually seen it.

    Have you heard any news about the Star Wars sequel? I'm wondering how it's coming along.

  10. Phil: I will keep an eye out for it.

    Kathryn: You're welcome :)

    Briane: Three words? Did I break the universe?

    Alex: Well, you need some of those glasses. Did you buy the glasses?

    Rusty: I don't know. You seem to have higher expectations for yourself than anyone else could ever put on you. And, besides, we could always Douglas Adams you and lock you in a room until you produced.

    J.L.: Yeah, you just have to keep going.

    GP: Oh, well, I'm looking forward to it, then.

    Elsie: Well, I'm glad to know that, but I will now have to try to write something that will become a new favorite.

    Jean: It was intended for whoever needed it, so, then, it was intended for you! :)
    And thank you.

    Michael: If I had to guess? Well, I probably shouldn't do that. Fewer have than haven't.

    I do have some news on Ep VII, but I'm not sure what I can say. I'll check on that. One thing I can say: They are working on auditions for the two primaries (I think they're the primaries, anyway.)

  11. Oh, wow.

    I actually had decided a few months ago that I was finished. Depression coupled with a slow physical recovery will do that to you.

    I no longer feel that way. This was an awesome post. :)

  12. It's certainly best not to treat our lives like our works. Welles was a great director. It's depressing to thing that he may have limited himself by deciding he couldn't do better.

  13. so, I know there is a thing called a plot arc but I have never used one... don't hate me!!!

  14. This is brilliant. Thank you for this post.

  15. This was fantastically said and I absolutely agree. This is why I don't use those dreaded words 'magnum opus' to describe anything I'm working on. Because then it becomes the book that I can never top, and setting your own boundaries of what you can and cannot do is just lame.

  16. RG: I'm glad you don't feel that way anymore!

    Jeanne: Yeah, it is depressing. He's still considered, in many circles, the best director that ever lived.

    Tammy: Well, you've used one if you've written a story, even if you didn't know that's what it was.

    Lauren: You're welcome.

    ABftS: Yeah, I don't say those things, either. "The best so far" is far as I'll go.

  17. This post really made me think. There's a Chinese curse that says, "May you live in interesting times." It's a curse because change is stressful as are the ups and downs of life. I'd rather have an even keel life than a rollercoaster one, so I hope my climax isn't coming - I prefer to torture my characters with climaxes! lol

  18. Yeah, it's something I have to remind myself of all the time. I do get stuck easily. And wouldn't you know it, I just happen to listen to that song quite a bit and it reminds me to get moving. :)

  19. Lexa: yeah, I'm familiar with that saying. Curse. Thing.
    Climaxes are generally considered good things. Unless, of course, you lose.

    L.G.: It's a good song! One of my favorites.

  20. Most definitely a post not to be missed. Andrew, this is exactly what I needed to hear this season. I've been feeling so overwhelmed and like I'm falling short in so many categories (like visiting my favorite blogs, ahem...)Glad to know that the best is yet to come!
    Thank you.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  21. Tina: I'm always overwhelmed. It's like learning to surf, I think.