Plot

Damon Knight

From Creating Short Fiction, copyright © 1981, 1997 by Damon Knight


You know this story, but in case you have forgotten: A man in a rooming house was in the habit of taking off his shoes at night and dropping them on the floor one at a time, with a pause for rumination in between. The lodger below had complained about this many times. One night, after dropping the first shoe, the man suddenly remembered the complaints and put the second shoe down gently.

After twenty minutes had passed, an agonized wail came up from the floor below: "For God's sake, drop the other shoe!"

In one way or another, every plotted story makes us wait for the other shoe to drop. We are waiting for the resolution of a conflict, or the solution to a puzzle, or the explanation of a mystery, or just the completion of a pattern, and it is this anticipation, as much as anything else, that makes us read on.

A plot, then, is a series of imaginary events designed to create anticipation at a high pitch, either in the form of anxiety (in a story of conflict or mystery), or of curiosity (in a puzzle story). If you can build such a series, you can plot.

In a plotted story, the ending may take the form of a resolution, a revelation, a decision, an explanation, or a solution.

Resolution is the end of a conflict by the victory of one side or the other. Revelation means the exposure of something previously hidden. In a decision story, the ending comes when the central character makes up her mind about something important and difficult. Explanation, obviously, provides the ending for a story about a mystery, and solution provides the ending for a puzzle.

The Story of Resolution

In order to discuss this, we must talk about an ideal structure that is seldom found in its complete form in short fiction. One name for it is the "plot skeleton." The skeleton has five bones:

  1. a believable and sympathetic central character;
  2. his urgent and difficult problem;
  3. his attempts to resolve the problem, which fail and make his situation more desperate;
  4. the crisis, his last chance to win;
  5. the successful resolution, brought about by means of the central character's own courage, ingenuity, etc.

The reverse of this plot is the story in which the central character is the villain; the story ends with his defeat rather than with his victory.

"Rain," by W. Somerset Maugham, has a complete plot skeleton if you take Miss Thompson as the central character. Miss Thompson is a raucous prostitute, forced by a quarantine to stay over at Pago Pago on her way home from Honolulu to Apia. Here the missionary, Mr. Davidson, threatens to make trouble for the governor unless he deports her to the mainland, where a prison sentence awaits her. Her problem is thus serious and urgent. She tries to solve it first by appealing to the governor and to Dr. Macphail. These attempts failing, she gives in to Mr. Davidson and allows him to save her soul. She becomes a changed woman, utterly crushed and transformed. Then she seduces Davidson, who cuts his throat in remorse and horror; the next day she is dressed and made up in her old manner, and her raucous laughter rings out again.

Some writing manuals insist that this is the only structure of successful popular fiction, but in fact, although many short stories begin this way, nearly all of them lack the third element (the failed attempts) and the fifth (the central character's victory by his own efforts). The third is left out because it is too hard to cram into a short story, and the fifth because repetition would make it dull. When a story has only two possible endings, it is hard to surprise the reader with either; when the story has only one conventional ending (the triumph of the hero), it is even harder.

Nevertheless, most plotted stories are built around some kind of conflict or competition whose outcome is in doubt. The beginning of the story sets forth the terms of the competition; the middle is the contest itself; the ending is the outcome. (Here's the bridge structure again.) If this were all there was to it, most plotted stories would be unbearably predictable. In practice, what usually happens is that the author uses the conflict structure to misdirect the reader--the real meaning of the story turns out to be something altogether different.

Conflict can be just a way of exposing character--we learn things about people when they are under stress that we would never find out otherwise. Aside from this, conflict is a convenient and simple way of keeping the reader interested until you can lead her to whatever it is that you want to reveal.

The Story of Revelation

Notice that even in Maugham's story, which has a complete plot skeleton, the ending is not narrated where it naturally falls but is brought out later with an air of revelation. More often, revelation replaces resolution. In Roald Dahl's "Man from the South," for example, the plot concerns a strange little man who offers to bet his new car against a young sailor's left little finger that the sailor's lighter won't light ten times in a row. He ties the sailor's hand to the table between them with the little finger extended, and waits with a cleaver poised while the sailor flicks his lighter. The sailor gets up to eight, and then the little man's wife comes in and stops the contest. He has no car to bet, she tells the onlookers; he has nothing, in fact, because she won it all from him long ago. She reaches for the car key on the table, and the others see that there is only a thumb and one finger on that hand.

Notice that either of the endings we are led to expect would be disappointing (the little man cuts off the sailor's finger, or the sailor gets into the car and drives away). The conflict with which the story begins is only a sham, a work of misdirection. What we are waiting for is the third ending, the surprising one.

In other stories, there is no pretense of a dramatic conflict--the revelation is all there is. An example is Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," about an ancient ritual performed every year in a New England village. Lots are drawn, first by families, then by households, then by individuals, until one person, a woman, has been selected. This process occupies the whole of the story until the last few paragraphs. Only then, when the villagers begin to stone the woman to death, do we find out what the lottery has been about.

Notice that in this story, although there is no conflict at all in the usual sense, there is rising tension because the choice is continually being narrowed down, and also because we know that we are coming closer to the revelation of the meaning of the lottery. If you can create rising tension, it doesn't matter whether there's conflict or not.

Another example of rising tension in a story without a conventional plot is Joseph Conrad's "Youth," about a ship foundering in a storm, in which the old captain might be said to have a problem in the plot-skeleton sense, but the narrator has none--he has no power of choice at any point, except at the end, when he can decide to try to keep near the other boats or go off by himself. And yet it is the narrator who is the central figure, the one in whom we are intensely interested; the old captain is almost incidental.

Trick Endings

Very short stories with surprising endings are called trick-ending stories. William Sydney Porter ("O. Henry") wrote hundreds of these stories and made a career of them. An example is his story of the widowed bakery owner who begins to have romantic feelings about a rather shabby man who comes in every day to buy a loaf of stale bread. On an impulse, she cuts a loaf open and conceals a pat of butter in it to surprise him. He comes back later, in a rage; he is an architect who uses stale bread to erase pencil lines from his drawings, and she has just ruined six months' work.

Trick-ending stories are out of fashion among the critics, but editors still buy them. Nearly half of all mystery short stories fall into this category.

The Story of Decision

Stories of this kind usually concern divided interests or loyalties. In John Collier's "The Steel Cat," for instance, a man has invented a better mousetrap: the mouse walks out along a beam to get the bait, the beam tilts, the mouse falls into a jar of water and drowns. The inventor has been all over the country demonstrating the trap with the aid of a beloved pet mouse, but without success. In Chicago he shows the trap to a buyer who is impressed, but who becomes suspicious when the inventor tries to rescue his pet; he won't believe the trap works until he sees the mouse dead. The anguished inventor lets it drown.

A pitfall in the story of decision is that the choice that faces your character may appear too simple--whether to accept her lover's offer of marriage or stay home and be a poor relation, for instance. The reader may think the girl is a dolt for even hesitating--the ending will fail because it is obvious. The trick is to make the choice really difficult, and to keep the reader from knowing in advance what your character's decision will be.

The Story of Explanation

An example is Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," in which a young man from the country is sent to a colonial New England town to seek his fortune with his relative, Major Molineux, an officer of the Crown. He receives strange answers whenever he inquires for his relative; men in curious garments are abroad on the streets with their faces painted. One of these tells the young man, "Watch here an hour, and Major Molineux will pass by." At length a noisy torchlit procession appears; in the midst of it is Major Molineux, in an open cart, tarred and feathered. The mystery is explained; the story is over.

The Story of Solution

Most "mystery stories" are really puzzle stories, the difference being that a mystery is explained by events, whereas a puzzle must be solved by the characters. In Lord Dunsany's "The Two Bottles of Relish," we know that a murder has occurred, but nobody can figure out how the body has been disposed of. The facts are these: The murderer is said to be a vegetarian. He bought two bottles of relish, six days apart. During the two weeks after the disappearance of his victim, he cut down ten larch trees and chopped them into two-foot lengths, but never burned them. He did not leave his home after the murder; the ground under and around his cottage has not been disturbed. Perhaps you have guessed the solution reached by the amateur detective in the story. But what about the trees--why did he cut them down? The last line of the story gives the answer:

"Solely," said Linley, "in order to get an appetite."

Readers of puzzle stories demand constant novelty--old solutions will not do. You probably should not attempt a puzzle story unless you have a taste for this kind of thing yourself and have read enough of it to have some idea of what other writers have done.

Stories about the approach of inevitable disaster form one exception to the rule that a plotted story must have an ending that is surprising in some way. Two examples are "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov, and "Billenium," by J.G. Ballard. In both we can see exactly where the story is heading; there is no element of surprise, and yet these stories compel our attention in the same way that a natural disaster does. In "Nightfall," people on another planet go mad and burn their cities when the stars appear once in a thousand years. In "Billenium," two young men in an overcrowded world of the future discover a forgotten and boarded-up apartment. Unheard-of luxury! They invite their friends in to share it one by one and partition off the space until it is just as crowded as everywhere else.

Sometimes the inevitable ending is averted, as in Wells's War of the Worlds, by a rabbit-out-of-the-hat solution so transparent that the feeling of inevitability remains; if not this time, next time (the Martians will destroy us, or whatever).

In stories of this kind, a rather detached attitude toward the characters is probably a good thing; the reader ought to be able to sit back and observe the characters moving toward their doom, without becoming intimately involved. (Disasters are entertainment only when they happen to other people.)

Common Plotting Faults and What to Do About Them

  1. Symptom: Story line wanders, never seems to go anywhere.
    Diagnosis: Author has started writing the story without any clear idea of its direction.
    Treatment: Give your central character a stronger motivation and make things more difficult for her. Rewrite without looking at the old version.
  2. Symptom: Story is confusing--too many characters, too much going on.
    Diagnosis: Author has not decided whose story this is, or has not found a way to focus the narrative on the central character.
    Treatment: Arbitrarily reduce the number of principal characters to three or four. Replot and rewrite.
  3. Symptom: Plot structure looks complete, but the story seems curiously pointless.
    Diagnosis: Author has forgotten that we must care about the chief characters and it must matter what happens to them. Stories like this are often written by young people (usually male) who believe they have to plot mechanically in order to be published. Even in most popular fiction, in categories where plot is very important, the characters are more important. If you don't believe in your own characters and feel deeply about them, nobody else will either.
    Treatment: This is not a plot problem at all. Go back to characters and build from there.
  4. Symptom: Ending is disappointing.
    Diagnosis: (1) Author has failed to misdirect the reader--the ending is disappointing because it is obvious; or (2) author has failed to plan ahead for the ending, hoping something would turn up, and in despair has tacked on a weak, irrelevant, or illogical ending.
    Treatment: It is useless to treat the ending by itself; any tacked-on ending will look tacked-on. Go back to the opening situation and replot.

Unplotted Stories

A plotted story has a skeletal structure that can be extracted and examined; the story makes sense if you just tell what happens in it. This is not true of unplotted stories. Consider, for example, Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." It is easy to say what happens in this story. The narrator gets off a train in a deserted countryside and walks deep into the forest, where he makes camp and goes to sleep. In the morning he catches grasshoppers for bait, has breakfast, and fishes the river. He catches trout and cleans them. This account could be expanded by adding detail, but even if it included every least thing that happens, it would not tell you what the story means.

The strength of "Big Two-Hearted River" lies partly in its symbolism (the river is the narrator's life, and he is fishing the upper part of it, which represents the lost paradise of his boyhood), but there are powerful unplotted stories in which symbolism plays no part. Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is simply the chronicle of a man's life; the same can be said of Willa Cather's "Good Neighbor Rosicky." In these stories we are profoundly moved, not by drama, but by the inner meaning of a human being's existence. These are stories of illumination rather than of revelation; they take the form, "This is what life is."

The story forms we have been discussing are not rigid little boxes, into which every work of fiction must be crammed; they are ideal categories. In practice, elements of these forms are mixed in all kinds of ways. The same story may be partly one of resolution, partly of solution, partly of illumination (see, for example, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett). When you understand the simple forms, you can mix and combine them to make more sophisticated ones. There is no end to the stories that can be written, because the possible combinations of old forms will never be exhausted, and because good writers keep on inventing new forms. 


Creating Short Fiction, 3rd edition, is published by St. Martin's Griffin, ISBN 0-312-15094-6.

Write to the author at dknight@efn.org.

Visitors since January 15, 2000: 47671