The End?

Happy Halloween! And with the last day of October here, midnight means one thing–the start of NaNoWriMo.

Yeah, I’m the second one.

Now, I’ve never done a midnight kickoff party (probably as Halloween hasn’t fallen on a Friday or Saturday since I started participating), but all over the forums tell me there are novelists ready to head out for their first write-in as the clock hits midnight.

What the forums also tell me is that a number of plotters out there are feeling the crunch for figuring out the ending of the novel they’ve spent much of October outlining.

For those who aren’t familiar/haven’t heard me use the term before, NaNoWriMo tends to divide participants into one of two groups: the Plotters (who outline their plot before the start of NaNoWriMo to work off of) and the Pantsers (who “fly by the seat of their pants” and write whatever comes to them at the spur of the moment). Both for November and in general, I tend to be the latter. If I don’t have a good reason to work out some rough outline (namely it’s a part of a series) I tend to start writing whatever comes to me. So far it has served me pretty well.

So why, then, do I feel at all qualified to address the plotters out there about their style? Mostly because, even if you need everything else plotted out, I feel there is some merit in not knowing your ending. If your story doesn’t spring to life with the ending already in place in your mind, there is no need to stare at your outline worrying about how you can’t write until you know if the Main Character (MC) is going to die, if the final game will be won, or really anything that happens after your climax. Once you get to that point, where you’ve been with these characters for thousands of words, figured out the tone of the book, and seen how everything actually fits together–sometimes it suddenly makes sense.

And so, if you are furiously wracking your brain trying to come up with an ending before the stroke of midnight, relax. Sometimes outlines change as you are writing. Sometimes you just need all the pieces before the last one will fall into place. Just certainly don’t feel like you’re going to fail November if you can’t think of an ending right this second. NaNoWriMo is about being a little crazy, so go with the feeling and just start. Who knows, you might be like me and find it more interesting when you don’t know how the story will end before you get there.

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To learn more about NaNoWriMo, go to nanowrimo.org. Good luck to all participating! 

[X] Types of Plot

Not too long ago, I touched on the idea of “Accidental Plagiarism” that is, the experience of writing something that seems original and then finding out that there’s something already out there that seems to have stolen the idea straight out of your head. It’s more common than I’m sure any writer would like, but it’s understandable. The more you read, the more you realize that there really seem to be no original ideas out there. That idea of having ancient gods live in the modern world? It might have popped into your head from seemingly nowhere, but if you look into it, American Gods, Gods Behaving Badly, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, mention it to a couple of people and the list of people who have used the same idea goes on and on.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon I’ve recently seen comes from this thread in the NaNoWriMo forums (yes, yes, I’m always there, I know). A poster stated:

So, I had this idea pop in my head. Where it came from, I have no idea. The very depths of my brain I guess. Anywho, I saw this scene, and a story fell into place. A world where Death is a man. He knows exactly who is going to die, when, where, why, etc…. If he touches someone, they will die… One day, walking down an alley or street, a door bangs open in front of him and a girl tumbles out… She looks at him, and that’s it, he falls in love. The problem, he can’t touch her or she will die.”

I have no doubt that the idea did pop organically into the poster’s head, but what does that sound like? The forum helped with that:

Family Guy actually does a joke version of that [“Death Lives” for those who care] Death is in love with a pet shop owner, and actually ends up touching and killing her at the end.”

Sort of like “Pushing Daisies.” The guy there can bring people back to life with one touch, but then they die again the next time he touches them. He brings the girl he was in love with back to life, but can’t touch her ever again or she’ll die irreversibly. They have a really cute romance with kissing through plastic wrap and stuff since they can’t touch skin to skin.”

Isn’t that what “Meet Joe Black” was sort of about? I’ve heard the movie described kind of like that.” / “Yup, and “Meet Joe Black” is based off an old black-and-white by the name of “Death Takes a Holliday[sic]“.

Have you ever read “On a Pale Horse?” It’s not exactly the same idea, but it is about the person of Death and he does fall in love.”

It hardly means the original poster shouldn’t write their story, but obviously the idea that popped into her head also popped into a lot of other people’s heads at one point or another. And, as I pointed out in the forum, all stories that use the “can’t touch the thing you love” plot tie even further back to the Ancient Greek King Midas myth. The newer stories might not have the greed factor (turning things into gold) but it is still the idea of a life where touching something will destroy it.

These shared “out of nowhere” ideas are so common that Carl Jung came up with the idea of a Collective Unconscious, which has been described as, “a universal library of human knowledge.” Simply, it’s the idea that there are some ideas so innate in us that the mere fact of being human means it shouldn’t be at all surprising when you have the same ideas as others.

Whether or not you’re willing to subscribe to Jung’s theory, people at least seem to agree that there are certain similarities you can break down all stories we tell into. The Reduced Shakespeare Company, for example, in their performance “Complete Hollywood [Abridged]” says that all movies are one of three general plots:

1. Boy Meets Girl
2. Coming of Age
3. The Jesus Story

They then go on to take examples from the audience and break them down into one of the three (in a very amusing fashion. I got to see them when they were at The Kennedy Center).

Of course, as with any theory, there are plenty of suggestions about the “right” way to break down stories.

Foster-Harris, in The Basic Patterns of Plot also breaks stories into three categories:

1. “Type A, happy ending” (the central character makes an “illogical” sacrifice for the sake of another).
2. “Type B, unhappy ending”(the central character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice).
3. “Type C, the literary plot” (the central character’s decision doesn’t matter as much as fate [such as often seen in Ancient Greek plays])

Another suggestion is “The Seven Basic Plots”

1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment
4. man vs. technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. god

Ronald Tobias, in 20 Master Plots, has twenty :

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension

And, because twenty sometimes isn’t enough, Georges Polti gives us thirty-six in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations:

1. Supplication (Supplicant must beg something from a Power)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (a temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love
19. Slaying of an Unrecognized Kinsman
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved One(s)
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of Loved One(s)
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved One(s)

You can argue about the exact types of plot, or even if it’s possible to classify all plots under any amount of categories, but assuming you can (I believe you could with all my novels/short stories) it really shouldn’t be surprising that true originality seems to be all but impossible. Death falling in love? It could be 15 from the 20 (Forbidden Love) 28 of 36 (Obstacles to Love) 5 of 7 (man vs. the supernatural) or any of the 3 depending on how the author writes the story. And so, once again, it seems that struggling for originality seems futile. Does that mean we should stop trying and write the same story over and over again? Of course not. It just means it’s that much more important to know that it isn’t the plot that will make the story special, it’s how you tell the story.

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