I love to think of myself as an author, blogger, warrior princess in my own mind and? TALENT SCOUT! I also love collecting talented people, which recently my attorneys informed me this is technically called “kidnapping” and is a “felony.” Oh well. Anyway, when I ran across Alex, I couldn’t wait to share his talent and voice with you guys. He is smart, funny, brilliant, and, since he is a W.A.N.A. he is also unusually good-looking.
It is a curse we all bear….
So to mix things up a bit, Alex is going to be helping me through the holiday season. This is a guest post by Alex Limberg from ‘Ride the Pen.’ Please welcome him with thunderous applause! His free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story helps you create intriguing novels and shorts. And today, he is here to inspire us to look at plot in a new way. Take it away, Alex!
*insert thunderous applause here*
You might think social media is a pretty new thing; and there is no denying it:
Edgar Allen Poe didn’t tweet his anxieties, Jane Austen didn’t present herself seductively on Instagram, and William Shakespeare never even wrote a single Facebook entry!
Or did he?
Let’s put it this way: While social media didn’t exist centuries ago, its underlying psychological principle is as old as mankind. And that principle is: The audience loves drama.
The tickle people nowadays find on Facebook and Pinterest, they could 400 years ago find in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, in Shakespeare’s times, dock workers were watching his comedies laughing and slapping their thighs.
So what better to study for drama than Facebook and Shakespeare?
And as Kristen’s blog is about creative writing, out of the two we should pick Shakespeare. Let’s take one of the most famous plays ever written and see how a masterful dramatic plot comes about: Let’s take a look at Macbeth!
Plot? What’s Plot?
Macbeth tells the story of a nobleman (Macbeth), who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become King of Scotland one day. This might have sparked his appetite for power, for he subsequently murders the king and rules the kingdom with malice. In the end his tyranny becomes so bad an alliance of nobles has to get together to defeat him and behead him at his castle.
Now let’s start out by explaining why an apple is an apple, i.e. answering the question: What is plot?
Plot is the movement of characters over the chess board of the story; it shows us what the figures do and what happens to them.
Good plot is plot that is moving the audience: It makes them feel suspense, laughter, anxiety or whatever else (Side note: If it’s a comedy and they only feel anxiety, you have it the wrong way). Plot is everything that happens, on a broader scale.
Additionally, plot will lead to POSSIBILITIES not acted out, which are very important as well, because they make the audience ask themselves QUESTIONS, e.g. the extraordinarily important question: What will happen next?
What MIGHT happen is often more thrilling than what actually DOES happen– you are aware of this if, for example, you have ever been out doing your thing while wondering whether you turned off the stove before leaving the house.
Excitement comes from what IS and from what COULD BE. What actually is reality, is a little less exciting, because, well, it is already. It’s the unknown that excites us the most, it’s the possibilities: How will your cat and your new pet canary get along? What will Grandmother say when she finds out your new boyfriend works for Burger King? Will drinking horse urine really improve your health?
Questions upon questions.
Once you get the answer, things might become very exciting for a short time, but the joy or desperation will wear off quickly. A question left hovering, however, could tickle you forever…
What REALLY excites your audience is not the answer to the following question, but the question itself: “WHAT THE $&*% IS GONNA HAPPEN NEXT!?“
So how do you make a plot really fascinating for the audience?
You do it by letting them wonder about as many QUESTIONS as possible. You see, this is the trick about creating a thrilling piece of plot: The game is about QUESTIONS! The more QUESTIONS the audience are asking themselves and the more urgently they are asking them, the more they will love your story.
Suspense is created by QUESTIONS the audience directs towards themselves (because, well, there is absolutely nobody better around to direct them at…).
Solving these questions, in turn, leads to new questions, and it is also essential to ask those new questions BEFORE the old ones are resolved! This way you are making sure you have your audience hooked constantly and without any gaps in between, which would mean a lagging plot, or, in the common man’s words, a really boring story.
While the plot constantly develops in a dynamic way, new burning questions will arise.
Your questions should also come up in your story NATURALLY. They should never feel as if they are just there because of the godlike will of the author. If a prisoner suddenly finds a file on the ground, and there is no cake around it, your audience might feel manipulated and won’t buy into the illusion of your story anymore.
You say so far this all sounds very theoretical? Now let’s take a look at how Master Shakespeare did it!
Shakespeare didn’t have to post his dinner on FB– Look how he hooked the reader instead…
First act, first scene: Enter witches. First immediate QUESTIONS: Are those bitches crazy?
Speaking weird sh!% in rhymes, running around under thunder and lightning in wide open space, probably with hunches, crooked fingers and dressed in rags. QUESTION: What the *&%$ is this?
Well, it’s an unusual and very powerful way to start a play: Notice how an original setting immediately raises a LOT of questions, before even a single word is spoken (Who are they? What are they doing out there? What’s gonna happen next?), while also providing visually exciting elements on stage for entertainment-hungry 17th century, Twitter-less eyeballs (storm, lightning, open space, eerie women). Good sh!%!
Cut to second scene. We hear war cries and see a king and a bloody warrior laying out a recap of the battle– it’s all very dynamic, but you don’t see the actual fight. So the play even spares the director the hassle of having to stage the battle, which in turn saves him a couple of stuntmen.
Immediately, questions arise: Who is fighting against whom? Who is winning? What do they want? Who was killed? What happened? What’s the king’s mission?
See how the plot starts to unfold almost unobtrusively, while questions, atmosphere and characters engage the audience’s interest and spark their excitement?
We hear about Macbeth before we even see him for the first time– this is, combined with the play’s title, a very effective way to spike curiosity! Question: Who will he be?
We can’t go through every single scene here, or else you will have to witness me chew and digest my copy of Macbeth out of sheer madness, but you get the picture:
On a micro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in a single scene, or maybe in an act.
On a macro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in the whole drama and to overall wow them.
In the third scene of the first act the
bitches witches, predict Macbeth will become king. With their prediction perhaps the two most intriguing QUESTIONS of the whole drama come to mind:
- Are those crooked women indeed capable of predicting the future (read as: Does fate exist)?
- Will Macbeth indeed become king eventually?
Those two questions essentially amount to the same single one. They will be resolved in the beginning of the third act, when we see Macbeth appearing as king for the first time.
Notice how by then, there will have been some urgent NEW QUESTIONS established, to never let the audience off the hook for even one second (Will the nobles ever discover that Macbeth has murdered the king? How will Macbeth cope with his own guilt? Etc…).
Please don’t do it this way…
They say you only really value something once it’s gone. So I want to make you value Shakespeare’s plot by cold-heartedly taking it away from you. This is how Shakespeare should never, ever have done it, no way.
Had he done it like this, they would have booed him off the stage, which would have made him so depressed he would have spent the rest of his lifetime on useless crap like twittering about his digestion all day long (Btw, twittering back then probably worked with REAL birds, as in messenger pigeons).
Macbeth Done All Wrong
The king, Duncan, in his castle, doing his thing (Instagram or whatever). We see him interacting with his sons and with nobility. He is friendly with them. No problems given, no questions asked, no solutions needed. He has a nice convo with Macbeth about the weather. He has supper with the nobles. He farts and goes to sleep.
In a short, easy-going monologue, Macbeth tells the audience he has killed the king. He is wearing the crown and is now the new king. Lady Macbeth is happy.
We see Macduff coming towards Macbeth’s castle, some soldiers behind him. Suddenly a soldier appears on stage and announces he has killed Macbeth.
Granted, Shakespeare’s play has much more content, but nevertheless the main point presents itself here in all its glory.
Notice all of the interesting questions missing: Will Macbeth murder the king? Will his guilt kill him? Will the predictions come true? How will Macduff react?
Much of the basic plot still happens: The king is murdered, Macbeth bullies the country, Macbeth gets killed. But there is no alluding to future events, no uncertainty around the acts or characters, no hovering possibility of doom.
No witches. No questions. No fun.
The Good-Bye Part (Summary)
I hope that from now on you will think of great plot in terms of QUESTIONS rather than in terms of events.
Create an outstanding plotline by raising intriguing QUESTIONS. Raise new QUESTIONS before you answer the old ones– this way your audience won’t ever be let off the hook!
With this new way of thinking, your readers will just have to know what happens next. You will get them eagerly turning the pages, completely addicted to your story. And you might, yes you just might…become even more important than Facebook to them.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story or check out his creative writing exercises. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
What are your thoughts? Do you go too easy on your characters thereby tanking your plot? Do you kind of wish they had Instagram back then? How cool would it have been to see an Attila the Hun Selfie? What historical figure would you have loved to follow on social media? Do you find that unanswered questions are actually WAY more interesting? Do you know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Alex is going to be guest posting a few more times, so if there are any other topics you’d like HIM to explore, put them in the comments!
Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
OCTOBER’S WINNER is M DELLERT Please e-mail your 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times Roman font to kristen@ wana intl dot com and congratulations!
This is such a great, clear-cut way to write compelling stories and makes so much sense–keep asking, What other questions can I coax out of my readers? Thank you, Alex!
(Love the picture if Shakespeare’s chagrin, by the way. :>)
Thank you Alex and Kristen!
masterclass on plotting! Superb post – thank you.
Lady MacBeth was crazy. I liked her. 🙂 Great post.
I’m always curious about how different artists would be if they grew up in our current culture. I wonder if it would have ruined them in a sense- exposed them as something other than as the ingenious creative minds atop the mysterious, perfected, and untouchable pedestals we place them on today.
This post is simply wonderful. Both helpful and entertaining. Keep up the awesomeness!
THIS WAS A GREAT POST!! THANKS KRISTEN.
-grin- Great fun and a thought provoking look at plot. Thank you both. 🙂
A thought…. could Macbeth have spoken as powerful a monologue as Richard III? (ref – Macbeth done badly – which I love, by the way). Answers herself – probably not as Macbeth starts out as a hero who makes bad choices. Richard starts out a villain and our questions are all to do with whether his stratagems (that he shares with us, making we the audience complicit with him) will be successful. Still questions – but a totally different set of questions presented in a totally different way…. Thank you for a thought provoking blog Alex.
When shall we three meet again
Kristen, me, and that new lantern
Perhaps he shares a better way, questions well might save the day
When I’ve time to ponder more; when I’ve read again his score
Perhaps the Muse will knock my door
Awesome, Alex! Thanks for the lesson on plotting. And, now… out, damn’d spot! out, I say! No, really… I have to wash up for dinner.
Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.
Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
The Truly Dramatic Plot—Shakespeare, Instagram, & Why Macbeth is STILL Awesome….great post from Kristen Lamb and Alex Limberg…
Hilarious and Informative – sadly – I have more questions about…..LOL
Funny thing, I’d noticed how many questions were asked in the Harry Potter series–seriously, EVERYBODY asked them (or thought them). Sometimes they were questions that came up and were answered in the same scene, sometimes they were questions that drove the plot of the particular book it was asked in, and sometimes they were questions that were not satisfactorily answered until the very end of the series. I started noticing–once I saw the pattern–that many of the books I’ve liked over the years have done the same thing.
Now, here comes Alex with his wonderful post. Darn it, why didn’t someone tell me this in the first place. It would have saved me at least two rewrites. 😉
That’s a good observation. I haven’t read Harry Potter but considering its enormous sucess, hey, this MUST be true, he he!
Woo hoo! Thanks Alex and thanks Kristin for having him. This is great stuff. I will now re-read for the millionth time my current MSS and see make sure I have on-going questions. I think I do, but maybe not enough?
Do you feel these questions are different from subplots? I use subplots to ask questions that aren’t as important as the BIG story question, but are compelling and interesting.
I also read a craft book about conflict and suspense that suggested your BIG Story Question be spiritually, physically, or emotionally life or death.
~ Tam Francis ~
P,S. Kristin I love your new pic with the Viking hat. You are soooo rockin’ it!
Hey Tam, you could ask questions within a scene, in your subplot, main plot, over an entire series, as Suzanne suggests above (Harry Potter), or wherever else you can. The more questions the better.
You can work on several levels, and as one gains writing experience, working these levels simultaneously becomes easier and easier.
I don’t think the questions need to be the big questions about life and death. It could be and often is something very mundane like “Will the persuer get Johnny Hero?” (Well , in some way this is about life and death, but I think that’s not how you meant it…).
And IF you do ask those big questions, be careful not to make the story and the questions too theoeretical. They need to be firmly interwoven with plot and characters.
The readers care about characters, not about some theoretical question.
Thanks. I think there are the big and little questions that drive the story. Even something like will the character get the job and if they do how will it change their course, who do they meet, who do they not meet. etc. Thanks for the reply
Thanks for your nice comments everybody.
And thanks Kristen for having me. You are truely awesome! Posting here is a boatload of fun (notice, I didn’t say *&%$load). There are not many big blogs in the world that let you post in an edgy style like that.
I raise the glass to Kristen and her awesome blog!
Bravo! This is so true and well said. I read something recently about the human brain craving resolution and that by providing tension (questions) in a story that is then resolved, it actually kicks in the neurotransmitters to provide a “reward” in the brain. Sort of like riding a roller coaster satisfies some need for adrenalin-fear-safety (not in me; but I understand other idiots might need it) rather than having to go out and fight for your life or whatever. So stories provide a civilizing vicarious way to participate in tension/release . . . like football only it last longer and hopefully sneaks in other things to think about.
Very interesting, sounds like the evil method of some soft drink or fast food company: “Let’s get them addicted!”
Yes, let’s get people addicted to our writings and glued to our pages!
Great post. And hilarious. My brain is currently skimming my MS to see what questions are there. Excellent advice. Thank you.
Excellent post and thanks to you both. I can’t wait to read the E-book. Nice giveaway by the way!
Thanks, Steve! Good to hear you like it.