Recently I have been getting a ton of messages and seeing a large number of questions involving plot. Like many of my writing tip segments, this is my queue to take a moment to do an information dump on the topic in hopes of aiding my fellow writers. Looking over all the plot related conversations and such, I decided that I will start from the very top and work my way from answering what a plot is, discuss plot types, and then point of main versus subplot versus background/world plots. I don’t expect any of the information to be entirely new to you, nor can I say my way of describing plots is a hundred percent textbook quality. My hope, as always, is to reveal my translation and way of thinking in hopes of helping anyone feeling intimidated or lost on any part of this topic. So here I go!
What is a Plot?
A plot, not matter the size or complexity, is something the writer uses to push and pull the main characters and their story in the directions they want the overall piece to go. In short, the plot is the tool we use to help us carve out the events, tone, atmosphere, chain of events, relationships, conflicts, obstacles and much more that we wish both our characters and readers to experience.
Plot does not always have to be something massive and complex, like gathering magic stones to take down the dragon who plans on devouring the world. In these scenarios, the characters’ relationships are the smaller plotline, or subplot, if there is any at all. It can be small and simplistic, for example in a manga/anime called Hotarubi No Mori E. This is simply a story that focuses all its attention on a girl’s first love or romance. The only thing driving this plot is the one rule that we are reminded of at every turn, “if he is touched by a human, he will die.” Just that one small stipulation drives this amazing short film and one-hit manga story.
Plots and Their Genres
Just remember that plots come in different shapes, sizes and flavors just like the genres and writing styles that help build them. Romance, Fantasy, Thrillers, Horrors – we all have read these or experienced movies and games with these labels and despite it the plots are each unique while having similar expectations on the focal point. The genre does not decide your plot, but sets an expectation of the plot’s focus.
Romance genres typically have plots who focus in on the main character’s relationships or love interests.
Fantasy genres often have plots that focus on overcoming some huge world destructive entity or a grand journey where a large discovery happens at its climax.
Horror stories often have plots that focus on pulling and tugging the character and reader down a path that neither of them want to go or realize have gone. The plots involved in this one tend to force the character to do things and experience things “against” their will.
This is only a snapshot, but I think it provides a visual snapshot of how plot and genre work together to create something the readers can look forward to, but still leave wide room for changes. Like I said a moment ago, a plot (no matter the genre) can be as simple as adding one rule or complication and wrapping the genre around that key element to make the story unfold.
BUT, not all plots fall in this cookie cutter plot expectations yet still can fit their genre perfectly. For example, PS I Love You was never about her falling in love with the secondary character, but actually him trying to help her fall out of love with him and make peace with his passing. This seems rather out of the ordinary for a Romance story, but the plot here focuses on the main character’s love interest with the complication of his passing driving the entire story. Once more, a small stipulation that has a huge impact on how the author was able to push and pull the character using this one plot tool”.
The main plot is what your story’s main focus will be. For example, my novel Cedric the Demonic Knight aims to show how Cedric and Angeline end up falling in love with one another. Often the main plot in a story is what drives the beginning, climax and end of the story and how it reflects the genre the writer is writing in. These are often seen bland at first but should reflect the writer’s ultimate goal and plans for the book’s skeleton outline. I want to share a love story between my demonic knight character and the magical heiress secondary character – enough said. From here, you can build on to this with one or more subplots to create layers and help character and story development move in different ways.
This is where you get to add a unique element or flavor to the story. You can have one or more to help you create events and create moments in your story you wish the characters and readers to experience. Often these result in “Plot Twists” since they distract us from the main plot, make a memorable moment and then out of it add to the main plot unexpectedly. Once again, using Cedric the Demonic Knight as a consistent example, there are many subplots being thrown into the mix.
In one chapter, Cedric and Angeline have to face chimeras in battle. Though this tiny subplot moment had nothing to do with their romantic relationship, it created a scenario for a chance to help push and p0ull the main plot. They both get hurt, and hence this gives an opening in the main plot to reflect how this affects their relationship and their feelings towards one another. Do they feel guilty for one another’s injuries? Are they upset that the other didn’t become strong enough? Does it make them realize how much they love one another? Do they even care about each other’s injuries at all?
In short, subplots can help a writer illustrate and answer a lot of questions about the characters they are following. The sub plot should always aid the main plot in some manner, whether it affects it immediately and at all times like in Hotarubi No Mori E or it’s an event that helps reveal something that couldn’t have been revealed without that outside the main plot push or pull.
World or Background Plots
You may be familiar with the first two types, but rarely is it broken out or pointed out that some stories have a World based plot or Background plot unfolding. Keep in mind you don’t have to have one of these, but in most stories you see the main plot teamed with either a sub plot or a world plot or both. So, what exactly is this? This is where outside the main plot the world or setting has its own plot or agenda that affects the characters. For example, you are writing a historical fiction with a Romance main plot. The World plot or background plot can be the historical time frame you chose with a impending tidal wave or the civil war is in full bloom. Often these are plots that the character’s are incapable of changing or work to pull and push on the main plot as a constant force helping drive it and its twists.
In Cedric the Demonic Knight my characters find out really fast that the world they live in is very involved in a dilemma they are part of but not fully aware of. Often in series a World Plot or Background Plot spans over multiple books, if not all of the series, using smaller main plots to traverse the various stages it involves.
Like a evil empire aiming for world domination that through a series of books feature main plots aimed to take down small sections of this larger world plot. It’s completely acceptable not to have to explain a world or background plot especially if it’s part of the setting more so than an actual plot that will eventually call for your characters full involvement.
Hopefully this section helps you break your plots into more manageable components and help those feel more confident of what they already have in front of them.