Wheels and Gears

I’m not going to talk here about “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” stories, because that’s a distinction made by critics, which is to say, from the outside looking in, whereas most writers find plot and character to be so thoroughly intermingled that talking about one as though it excluded the other feels pointless.

It is fair to say, though, that some stories have more in them by way of external incidents than others do, and that one of the tricky parts of writing a story like that is fitting all of the incidents together into a smoothly-working vehicle that carries the reader to whatever place it is that the writer wants them to go.  (Where that place is doesn’t really matter; it could be a quiet moment of personal epiphany, or it could be the final battle in the desperate struggle against an invasion of machine intelligences from an alternate dimension.  What’s important is keeping the reader headed that way, and not letting them wander off into fretful speculation as to why the protagonist is so dense, or how the interdimensional travel equations might really work.)

One way to put the incidents together is in a simple sequence:  one incident, or plot thread, or bit of narrative plays out from start to finish, and then the next one in line begins its run, and so on until the end.  This is particularly useful in long-form or serialized works, and like a lot of apparently simple things, it’s easy to do a mediocre job of it and hard to do an excellent one.  Good arc-based television, and good comic book series, give examples of how the trick is done.  The primary technique is to start cueing up the next incident before the current one is finished, so that the teeth on the gear of the current arc mesh with the teeth on the gear of the upcoming one without a jolt.  (I could say something about making certain to use bigger and bigger gears as you head toward the overall climax, but that would probably be straining the analogy beyond its natural limits.)

The other way to put incidents together effectively is less like gears than it’s like a braid.  You’ve got a sequence of incidents leading up to Plot Element Solution A, and another sequence leading up to Plot Element Solution B, and possibly a third leading up to Plot Element Solution C, and all of them have to fit together to make up Overall Plot Solution D.  This is good for one-shot stories, where you’re planning to finish the tale and get out; it’s also good for mysteries and thrillers and caper plots, or for any kind of story that requires more than one angle on the action, whether internal or external.

The tricky bits in braiding a story are first, figuring out just how long to stay with one thread before dropping it and picking up another one for a while (too short a time, and your readers are going to get whiplash; too long, and they’ll either grow impatient and skip ahead to the next bit with their favorite character or plot element, or they’ll get so engrossed in the current bit that they’ll forget what they’re supposed to be remembering about all of the others); and second, keeping track of which characters are doing what things when, and making certain that the characters in one thread don’t know about things in other threads that they haven’t been told, just because you-the-author know those things already.

Making charts and timelines can help with the second kind of tricky bit; about all that helps with the first kind is practice, and maybe the knowledge that even the pros don’t get to stop wrestling with it, because every story is different and there isn’t a magic formula that can be applied to get the answer.

You try something, and you see if it works.  And if it doesn’t, you try again.

It’s the trying again that’s the key.

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