Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the eighth chapter, “A Good Plot Is Made Out of Two Things.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
A Good Plot Is Made Out of Two Things
Every plot can be boiled down to two basic elements: plot devices, and turning points. This is just as true if the plot is “buying a hat,” or “saving the world.”
Like every other aspect of writing, plots tend to get pretty mystified, because when they actually work, they seem bigger and more magical. But plots are just mechanisms, made up of levers and cranks and pulleys, which give the characters a reason to move through the story. Plots are interesting if they’re clever, or if they help the characters grow and change (like we talked about last week), or if they set up interesting situations.
But when a plot really clicks, the plot devices take on a whole other meaning and life of their own. It’s like that stuffed animal that you got on a trip to the seaside arcade with your family: it’s just a lump of stuffing and fake fur, with a crude cartoon face. But the longer it sits on your bedside table, the more it feels like an extension of the people you love, and the more emotions you put onto it.
So what are these two elements?
A plot device is a thing, or an idea, or a contrivance, that creates conflict and forces the characters to take action. The characters have to achieve some goal, or they want to prevent something from happening, or they want to escape from a bad situation. A lot of plots boil down to, “I want this sandwich, but someone else doesn’t want me to have this sandwich.”
Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “McGuffin,” meaning an object that everybody is searching for—like the Maltese Falcon. Creators like Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams have taken this concept to its ultimate extreme, building complex plots around McGuffins that we never learn much about. There’s a mysterious briefcase, or a Sith dagger, and they’re important mostly because they give the characters a reason to act, rather than because of anything intrinsically interesting.
But a plot device can also be something like “we’re locked up in a space prison that’s about to self-destruct, and the last escape pod launches in an hour,” or “two bitter enemies must work together to solve a mystery.” Plot devices frequently shade over into being tropes, something we’ll talk about later.
And a turning point is just what it sounds like: a moment where everything changes, and the plot veers off on another trajectory. You can only follow one thread for so long before you need to switch things up. It can be useful to diagram your favorite movie or book and spot these inflection points—often, they come when a secret is revealed, a quest comes to an unfortunate end, a character dies, heroes suffer an unfortunate setback, or shit otherwise gets real.
Basically, if a given plot device starts wearing out its welcome, you can swap it out for another one (or a whole cluster of them). If the characters have spent 100 pages trying to escape from a dungeon or pull off a heist, then the turning point comes when they pull off their plan, and either fail or succeed. And there are unforeseen consequences either way, which turn things sideways.
Did you ever find yourself standing in your kitchen, but you couldn’t remember what you went in there to get? That’s the way a lot of first drafts are, and it’s actually fine. Your characters go to a place, for reasons, but you kept changing your mind about what those reasons were, or you actually forgot to give them a reason to go there. It’s really fine.
Plot devices are the easiest thing to add, or change, in revision. We get overly attached to them—because again, when they work, they seem magical. But in real life, we generally have five different reasons for every single thing we do. You might go to Pittsburgh to visit your uncle, but also there’s a bookstore you’ve been dying to visit, and you’d like to be out of town when your ex is having a wedding. And it’s shockingly easy to change “we had to sneak into the fortress to steal the secret plans” to “we had to sneak into the fortress to rescue somebody.” Frequently, making such a seemingly major change means rewriting one exposition-filled scene plus a line of dialogue here and there.
What people do is usually more interesting than why they do it—unless the “why” is really personal, and has to do with their character arcs. But if their actions are just about a widget, then the widget is pretty interchangeable. Until it isn’t.
How, and when, to commit to plot devices
At a certain point, a plot device gets embedded in the foundation of your story. The characters start having emotional attachments to the McGuffin, and the themes and ideas of the narrative connect deeply to a thing, or a particular situation. And maybe the ending of the story really only works with one particular configuration of gears and turbines. You get enough connective tissue and these plot wingdings will start to feel significant.
At that point, you can no longer just change the reason for a major sequence of events, without tearing out lots and lots of stuff.
I try to hold off committing to plot devices until I get to the revision stage, because I’m always worried about the cart driving the horse. I’ve had plenty of occasions where my characters got twisted into knots trying to make a plot thing work, when I only put the plot thing there in the first place to help the characters advance.
Sometimes, I’ll throw in a dozen plot devices and see which one sticks—and by “sticks,” I mean “generates some good moments and causes the characters to come alive.” I will write a scene where the characters talk about some mysterious secret weapon or whatnot, and then I’ll just find myself forgetting to mention the secret weapon again, for another 20 or 30 pages, because the characters lost interest in it. Or really, I lost interest in it. My first drafts are littered with plot levers that seem super important, and then are never spoken of again.
All the Birds in the Sky, in particular, was crammed full of plot things that I had to lose. Laurence didn’t just build a two-second time machine, but also a host of other random gadgets that were good for a joke but ended up being too much. There were aliens, as I mentioned before. The middle school where Laurence and Patricia study had a weird curriculum that turned to be a strange experiment created by an evil cult (who were connected to the aliens.) There were a lot of magical objects and complications, stemming from the old rivalry between two factions of magicians. And so on, and so on.
And in my upcoming young-adult novel Victories Greater Than Death—minor spoiler alert—there’s a plot device called the Talgan stone. Early drafts of the book had everybody searching for the long-lost Talgan stone, and it felt like too basic of a McGuffin. I was leery of writing scene after scene where people talked about the search for this doohickey, and I couldn’t make up my mind about what this thing even was. So I dropped the Talgan stone like a hot rock and wrote three or four drafts without it.
Then, late in the revision process, I had to go back and find something to add a sense of momentum to the first half of the book. I needed something that would help the characters get to where I needed them to be in the midpoint of the book, and give them the information they needed to find the stuff I needed them to find. I racked my brains…and ended up finding the Talgan stone, right where I’d dropped it. And it ended up being exactly what I needed, because now I was clear on what I needed it to do.
And that’s the crux: sometimes you have a plot device just to have a plot device, and it just ends up generating more clutter. And then sometimes, you have a yawning chasm in your story, or something to raise the stakes and tension early on, and a good plot device can be just the thing. And again, plot devices aren’t just objects—they can be stuff like “we got locked in a cage” or “my evil brother-in-law just showed up.”
It’s hard to generalize about plot devices, because different types of stories have different needs. Try to imagine if Douglas Adams was forced to include fewer random incidents and outlandish objects in his writing—it would be tragic. A spy thriller needs gadgets and ticking ticky things and chases, or it’s a total epic fail. And yet in many cases, less is more. Like, say, if you have a Sith dagger, you might not also need a Sith wayfinder, because those are basically the same thing twice. Just sayin’.
Time to blow up some dichotomies, because that’s my brand
If you’ve ever read pretty much any of my fiction, you’ll know that I love to smash false oppositions and binaries into tiny fragments of rhetorical schmutz.
So here are two dichotomies I want to take a sledgehammer to:
“Pantser vs. plotter”: You’ll hear this one a lot in writing things. Sometimes it’s also described as “gardener vs. architect”. The idea is that some writers just make everything up as they go along, without any idea of where the story might be going, and they sort of “discover” the plot as they go. And other writers will meticulously plan out every last bit of the story beforehand, and maybe even just expand that outline little by little, until it becomes a full draft.
The truth is, most writers do some of both. Even if you plan everything carefully, some stuff inevitably doesn’t work and has to be rethought, and character stuff will often land differently than you expected. And even the most spontaneous writer will have some idea of where things are going, and will maybe make notes on what ought to be coming.
I’ve found every way there is to screw up writing a story. To take the two examples above, All the Birds in the Sky was definitely a lot of fumbling ahead and walking into walls without a real plan, while the young-adult trilogy has been painstakingly outlined. I’ve also had the privilege of working in a couple of television writers’ rooms, where a season of television gets outlined first at the season level, then the episode level, then the scene-by-scene breakdown, then all the tiny beats in each scene. And I’ve always found that because I’m a person writing about people, it’s impossible to plan everything—but it’s also impossible to get anywhere unless you’re making some plans and thinking ahead.
It’s not an either/or, it’s a spectrum. And the most successful approach tends to be a mix of the two. You never want to close yourself off to happy accidents, but you want to have some stuff up your sleeve no matter what. And you’ll always have to rethink things in revision—which is why I always outline a story after I’ve written one or two drafts.
“Character-based vs. plot-based”: This is a distinction I used to hear endlessly when I was starting out as a fiction-writer, though I don’t hear it as much lately. Basically, the idea is that some stories are based more on characters and their emotional journeys, while others are purely about chases and fights and puzzles and ticking ticky things. The former sort includes romances as well as literary works, while the latter category refers to spy stories, action-adventures, political thrillers, and romps.
And once again, I’d say this is a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. Almost every story is some mix of character stuff and plot stuff, and the mix often varies from page to page and chapter to chapter. Character is action: people aren’t just a collection of feelings and opinions and habits, but rather the sum total of all the choices they take. Meanwhile, even the plottiest plotfest needs to have characters who we root for, or else none of the secret codes and countdowns will matter worth a damn.
Both of these binaries are worth questioning, because creating a good plot might require you to be able to change modes again and again. Sometimes you need to take a step back and do more planning, while at other times you might need to blow up everything and just make things up as you go along. Sometimes a plot device isn’t working because the characters aren’t invested enough in it, which in turn is because you’re not invested enough in the characters.
And sometimes your characters are lifeless because the plot isn’t generating enough urgency. It’s a freaking ecosystem, people.
The danger of describing a plot in mechanistic terms, as I’ve done above, is that you might start to think of a steady-state machine, which just chugs along at a constant pace until it finally shuts down. Plots, meanwhile, need to pick up their pace and urgency and intensity as they go along, so they can reach some kind of crescendo toward the end. To raise the stakes, you have to earn the reader’s (and your own) trust and suspension of disbelief—if we’re not fully convinced that one giant rock-tunneling spider is bad, then we won’t be scared when there’s suddenly an army of giant rock-tunneling spiders.
That sense of rising action depends on how much we feel the menace or vitality of a particular event or situation, which in turn depends on the characters. We care about the crystal goblet of the Troll Overlord because the characters care about it, not because we love crystal goblets. When something happens, we need to see the characters reacting and mourning and coping and/or celebrating. And vivid and memorable details matter, including sensory stuff like smells and sounds, for helping us to believe in what’s going on.
So if your plot is a machine, it’s a rocket: it needs to keep accelerating in order to achieve escape velocity. And it needs to keep the people inside it alive—rather than letting that acceleration smush them to death.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.