Math, Meatloaf and My Passion for Plot Theory


Craft, Motivation / Monday, October 12th, 2015

Once upon a time, everyone in the world thought they knew how to tell a story. And generally speaking, they did.

They knew that a story needed characters, a setting, a beginning, a middle and an end. And generally speaking, everyone in the world knew a good story when they heard one. But then (and this is the conflict if you’re keeping score) everybody in the world couldn’t quite tell you why one story worked well and one didn’t.

Some tellers of these stories thought that the structure of a story should look like a math problem — with specific necessary plot points, rising action and logical conclusions.  Some tellers of these stories thought that structure of a story is more like a recipe for meatloaf: throw enough stuff in and hope for the best. 

Meatloaf and My Passion for Plot Theory
Stories are neither math problems nor recipes for meatloaf. But they are like them in a way.  I believe the best stories are written by creators who have studied plot theory: they understand the logic, they understand the linear action of a story and they really understand their ingredients. 
Plot Theory is analysis of the elements of a story.

The purpose of studying plot is to get a bird’s eye view of structure, events and rising action. Having a plot, understanding plot, looking for the upward climb of action in the story is helpful, and will make you story more recognizable to the reader.

For the sake of this blog post, when I refer to plots, I’m referring to the theory of it, not individual kinds of plots, like rags-to-riches or boy-meets-girl. If you want to get into specific plots, you can always check out what Christopher Booker had to say about the seven great plots of Western culture. 
It just so happens that my study of plot theory coincides with my homeschool teaching of linear algebra to my homeschooled high school kids. So when I look at the study of plots, all I can think of is MATH!

Admittedly, I avoid math like the way J.D. Salinger avoids Facebook, but this? This is beautiful!

Look at the way that Kurt Vonnegut illustrated common stories in a linear way!  You can see the whole graph if you click this link. And what’s even cooler is watching his YouTube video on this idea!
So plots have been studied by many, not just Booker and Vonnegut.
I love these graphs create a path for me as I outline the events in my story. If I KNOW that I have to have the tension rise, then I can think about what scenes need to go there. If I know that I need my characters to hit rock bottom, I can see WHEN the best time to do that. (About 3/4 of the way in!) Just like I know that if you don’t put eggs in your meatloaf, it’s going to get all crumbly.
There’s also Blake Snyder, who developed the Save The Cat plot structure. This is also a well-thought out blueprint for storytelling. It easily follows general storytelling principles and is a great tool. You can see a beat sheet here. 
Larry Brooks also has great tips. Check them out here. 
And if you want some K.M. Weiland wisdom in your life, you can also see what she has to say about this here. 

Yes, we can tell a story without understanding theory, just like we can make meatloaf with beef, bread crumbs and eggs. 

You can throw a bunch of stuff into a bowl with ground beef and bread crumbs and hope it turns into meatloaf. The best meatloaf takes into consideration the theory behind it: why certain ingredients work best. A good storyteller takes the ingredients of a story, analyzes them, chooses them carefully and understands the role of each ingredient. The reader of the story, or the eater of the meatloaf, will enjoy the difference, even if they can’t articulate it.
The beauty of storytelling (and of meatloaf making) is that it is unlike math: there is no right or wrong answer. Just because there is plenty of room for creativity, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand the theory behind it.  A sure sign of an amateur is one who lets their “seat of the pants” momentum negate good logic. In Western civilization we were raised on structured stories and we need to assume that our readers expect a general process of storytelling that is not just beginning, middle and end.

 So if you think of storytelling like meatloaf, or if you think of storytelling like math, remember this: your readers deserve your best. Do what you can to give it to them. 


I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward, PTSD survivor, and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. She also co-hosts a writing podcast with Kathryn Lang. Listen to WriteTalk here.  Her new novel, Soulless Creatures, which is about two 18 year old boys, not vampires, will be released August 2015.

 


Free Copy of Soulless Creatures for any OU Alumni! by Katharine GrubbWorking-class future leader Roy Castleberry and pampered over-thinker Jonathan Campbell are 18-year-old freshmen at the University of Oklahoma who think they know everything. Roy thinks Jonathan could succeed in wooing Abby if he stopped obsessing over Walden. Jonathan thinks Roy could learn to be self-actualized if he’d stop flirting with every girl he meets. They make a wager: if Roy can prove that he has some poetic thought, some inner life, A SOUL, then Jonathan will give him the car he got for graduation. Roy takes the bet because he thinks this is the easiest game he’s ever played. Roy spends the rest of the school year proving the existence of his soul, competing against Jonathan for Abby’s attention, dodging RAs who are curious about the fake ID ring in his room and dealing with his past. For Roy and Jonathan, college life in 1986 is richer, (both experientially and financially) than either of them expected.

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Soulless Creatures by Katharine Grubb

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