A story should always have a plot, regardless of genre. This is much easier said than done, though. I know quite a few writers who can write the hell out of a scene or really set up a situation, but that's about it. A plot is so much more than that.
If you are new to writing, there are a few basics you should probably know about story structure. First, there is a beginning, middle, and end (although not always in that chronological sequence). Second, there are usually five components of a plot arc: set-up/exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement/resolution.
Set-Up/Exposition - This is where the characters are introduced and the situation is set up for the reader. It's important to catch a reader's attention here, because she could easily be checking her Facebook account or tweeting, rather than using her time reading your story. Hook her with the first sentence and guide her into the story.
Rising Action - Imagine a pot of water being placed on a hot stove. Rising action is just the water heating up quickly. This is where the obstacles start to slam your protagonist. Keep in mind that if it's not heating up, then you're not cooking with your story.
Climax - The pot is now boiling! Your story is now at the highest point of tension. What's going to happen to your protagonist? I have to know! This is so intense that I'm going to finish this story before I respond to these damn tweets.
Falling Action - This is what the protagonist's response is to the climax. Imagine that you're taking the boiling water off the stove now. It is still hot, but it's cooling down. The story is steering itself towards an ending.
Denouement/Resolution - This is the conclusion to the story. What happens to your protagonist? Is it satisfying? Maybe it's shocking. Maybe it's open-ended. Regardless, the water is now room temperature--that is unless you're the type of writer who likes to take the pot of water off the stove at the last possible minute.
The most important thing to remember about plot is that you must have conflict. Since all major characters have motivations, the key is having those motivations have conflicting results for other characters. For example, you're in my class and want to make an "A," but I'm required to grade using a curve that only allows me to give out five "A's." Our motivations are different, and as a result, the seeds are there for possible conflicts. But conflicts don't have to just exist between characters. They can be internal struggles, battles with nature, etc. The key is that you have to put your protagonist (to reuse this metaphor) in some hot water.
The irony is that most writers are conflict-averse. I can't stand arguing or getting into messy situations, but for the sake of my stories, I have to at least put my character to the test.
One last point on plot. Know exactly where to start your story. Start as close to the action as you can. In fact, your story should already be going by the time you write the first word. It's not necessary that we see your character wake up and get ready for work--unless that is absolutely necessary for us to appreciate the conflict.
In the beginning, writers created motivation for their characters and, having done so, gave birth to stories.
Okay. Enough of the scriptural prelude.
While a lot can be said about characters and characterization, I would be remiss if I didn't start with the protagonist. Many people refer to the protagonist as the good guy, but I don't really believe in good or bad people, especially when it comes to literature. The best characters aren't stock or fill-in-the-blank characters; they are ones that make decisions that may or may not have adverse effects on others. It's kind of Zen-like when you think about it: characters define themselves by what they do. As such, a protagonist might best be described as simply "the main character," the character who enters the hero's journey or seeks to find something. And in keeping with the disposal of good and bad, the antagonist would simply be the character with a motivation that runs directly opposed to the motivation of the protagonist. These conflicting motivations give rise to conflict, which is what gives rise to plot (but that's another discussion altogether). *Note: Conflict is not just the effect of character on character motivation; it could arise from a number of factors, including nature, self, or a higher force.
If a character goes through changes, or is dynamic, he is considered round. That simply means that the character at the beginning of the story has evolved by the time the resolution comes. More than 90% of the protagonists in literature are round.
Flat characters are the opposite of round characters in that they are static and don't change. Hollywood tends to play with this type of character in movies that involve people with mental disabilities. While a mild argument could be placed on Raymond from Rain Man being round, he's actually much more of a flat character. As a result, flat characters tend to be accompanied by round characters. Just look at Forrest Gump. He had Jenny and Lieutenant Dan to balance him out. And Lenny had George in Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men.
Stock characters are best described as characters that, once they are seen, the reader automatically knows what role they serve. Just think of cowboys with white and black hats.
A final category of characters are archetypes, which, in the wrong hands, can become stereotypes. Each culture has its own archetypes. With African-American literature in particular, there are a number of them: the sambo, the mammy, the tragic mulatto, the bad-ass, the buck, the militant, the sapphire, and the list goes on and on. Just one look at a TV show like Good Times, and one sees many of these archetypes on full display. At one point in time, archetypes were original character types, but history has shown us that readers tend to respond to characters whose traits are recognizable in some way, so now archetypes straddle the line between being rehashed character types and stereotypes.
While a lot more could be said about characters, the main thing to remember is that they are representations of human beings (which is a pretty heavy notion when you think about it). Everything else is just a way of explaining how a character functions within a story.
Settings are more important than most novice writers might realize. While the most basic idea behind a setting is the "where" of the story, one particular type of setting must usually be addressed in literary (and even non-literary) stories: cultural/historical settings.
Each story actually comes out of a culture. There are numerous other cultural influences on the setting of a story, regardless of the writer's ethnicity. For example, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club comes out of the Chinese/Chinese-American culture. All writers draw from their cultures. Understanding this cultural component of a story helps to flesh out the background against which the plot is happening.
Now add in the historical element, or the period of time in which these events occur, and you have a more full setting. An examination of Alice Walker's The Color Purple clearly illustrates this. It's not just enough to know that you are dealing with a Southern, rural African-American culture; you have to also factor in the time period in which the events of the story are happening.
And why is any of this important?
It boils down to one word: Verisimilitude (a fancy word for "ringing true").
So you wouldn't see Miss Sophia running for the office of president of the United States, given the cultural/historic setting of the story, nor would a reader be able to appreciate the magnitude of the piano as a symbol in Amy Tan's story "Two Kinds," unless the reader could appreciate the cultural/historical elements that shape the conflict of the story.
While it's easy to just write a story and have the reader assume the cultural/historical elements of your setting, it is better to drop in a few references. After all, good writing should survive your lifetime, and if you want people to understand what you were talking about in your work, you have to frame it properly.
A while back, I wrote an entry addressing some of my thoughts on editing. Since then (and since a number of my present, past, and future students have managed to find this page), I have decided to do several entries on the craft of writing. I'll be sure to tag all of these posts with the words "Writing Tips" for quicker reference in the archives.
So let's begin...
One of the most difficult aspects of creative writing that I continue to wrestle with every time I sit down to write is Point of View (POV). I have at times labored over this one element for months on end, sometimes getting one hundred pages into a draft before starting over with another POV.
There are three general categories of POV: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. (Some scholars say that there's a fourth category, which is blending the different POVs--but that's beyond the scope of this entry.)
First person works are typically characterized by their usage of first person pronouns (I, me, my, We, us, our) and allow the reader to be directly in the mind of the narrator of the story (a character who may or may not be the protagonist--but I'll save that for another day). The obvious limitations for this particular POV (which can be heavily favored by new writers) are that you are confined only to what the character can actually perceive. For example, if the narrator is in a classroom, she can't discuss things going on in a totally different building (unless she can see it from that classroom). This limitation throws some people for a loop, mainly because it requires that the writer seriously consider who should be telling the story in the first place. Another limitation is that, just like real people, we have to question how credible the character is who is telling us these things. A final limitation is that some writers use this POV as an excuse to hide hideous writing by saying, "I'm just speaking in the voice of the character." It's one thing to write the next PUSH, but every writer needs to master grammar--period.
While most people tend to use second person for recipes, instructions, and directions, there are instances where 2nd person can be used effectively in fiction. Second person, usually characterized by the use of the word "you" (either directly expressed or implied) can sometimes be a bit tricky. After all, doesn't 1st person by default indicate that there is a "you" who is on the receiving end of a story? Most writers tend to look at 2nd person as more of an active "you," as opposed to a passive "you," and typically there are two key ways this is accomplished: (1) where "you" are the receiver of the narrator's actions ("There you are my dear friend. We haven't seen each other in years, but tonight I will have my revenge!") and (2) where "you" are put in the place of the protagonist ("You wake in the morning to find that you have turned into a gigantic bug!"). Many writers choose to avoid this POV, especially for longer works, but there are several authors who have pulled this off successfully in longer works, writers like Tayari Jones and Iain Pears.
This category actually has three different types (although the third category mentioned here often goes overlooked). All three are characterized by third person pronouns (he, she, it, they, etc.).
* Omniscient - This 3rd Person POV is "all knowing." In other words, the reader can see inside the heads of all of the characters, get background history, and basically get a god's eye view of the story. Fairy tales are pretty rudimentary examples of this, although there are many authors (like Stephen King) who employ this POV from time to time. The risk of using this type of POV is that, if not executed well, it could create greater distance between the readers and the characters or worse: muddy up the plot with a lot of extraneous information.
* Limited (or Limited Omniscient) - This 3rd Person POV allows the reader to follow the thoughts of one character, although many writers may choose to shift limited perspectives in other sections of a book. This is perhaps the most common POV of them all, 1st and 2nd included. While there is nothing wrong with using this POV, do understand that it is about as ubiquitous as an iPhone, so you will have to write really well to elevate yourself from the crowd--oh yeah, and having a great story wouldn't hurt either.
* Dramatic - This is the most overlooked POV of them all. This POV allows the story to be told without putting you inside the heads of any of the characters. Without knowing their inner thoughts, the reader is left to determine their motivations strictly based on their actions and their words--just like in Theater, sans the soliloquies. Richard Price's Lush Life uses this POV very well, although most writers will at some point lapse into one of the other 3rd person POVs. The main problem with this POV is that it requires what some might view as an excessive amount of dialogue or narrative, without any thoughts to break everything up. If, however, you really want to see a writer freak the 3rd person POV for real, check out Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where he manages to hit upon all three 3rd person POVs in the same story.
Well, that's it for this entry. I wish there was an easy way of selecting a POV, but many times the story itself will demand how it should be written. In the meantime, feel free to practice writing under any of these POVs until the day comes when you start your novel.
Many of my students have labored under the assumption that if they were captivated by an idea, then merely writing it down made it sacred. I call it the "from God to me to the page" theory. In nearly every case, work presented for a grade that went through this process is far from being what it can be. (Note: this is my euphemism for saying that the work tends to be lousy.) And why shouldn't any first draft be lousy?
Hemingway talked about first drafts being shit. Anne Lamott even devotes an entire chapter from her book Bird by Bird to the notion that first drafts are shitty. So why then do many students feel that they are immune to this process?
Maybe it's just the assumption that writing is much easier than it really is. Because many of us have had the luxury of reading a really talented author, we take for granted that what they are doing is something that is easy to replicate. For a child watching a marionette show for the first time, the idea of jiggling a doll on some strings seems painfully easy--as if there is no real art to the craft. All it takes is getting tangled in the strings to recognize the complexity of such an act. Metaphorically, many writers get tangled in language, plot, setting, and dialogue, but because they can't visually see those things, they figure that their ignorance of those things is not a sign of deficiency but instead a sign of their budding genius.
I guess that is the double-edged sword of writing though: when you are really good at what you do, it does come across as painfully easy to those outsiders looking in. They don't see how you wrestled with POV for several weeks or how you wrote a hundred pages, only to start over and write from a different character's perspective.
But this post is not designed to slam or belittle newbie writers. In fact, it is designed to do the opposite. It is designed to remind writers of the significance of the editing process and how one must approach this process with a completely open mind. No sentence is too sacred, no joke too funny, to be cut out of the final draft. Everything on the page must justify itself. That includes each word and punctuation symbol.
I'm not even saying you have to be a master of all of these elements, but if you're going to call yourself a true writer, you, at the very least, need to be a student of them.