1. Ground rules, and plots

First things first. Before committing myself to write a novel on any of the topics that interest me, I need to define a set of guidelines that will help make this experience (1) achievable, (2) entertaining, and (3) effective.

To make an entry per day, I will limit myself to no more than 800 words per essay; this should keep everything sweet and simple. I will use a “conversational” style of writing, making it easy to write but also to read. I will go into a wide variety of topics; again, diversity is one of the fundamental precursors of innovation. Finally, I will increase the complexity of the issues I discuss as I progress; this should push me to improve my arguments and rhetorical skill. Hopefully, at the end of this exercise, I would not only talk about some of my favourites ideas but also become a better writer. Now, with all that out of the way, let’s start with today’s topic.

As I mentioned before, I plan to combine the storytelling craft with academic writing. I intend to make my work more accessible and entertaining, yet remain objective and informative. Easier said than done. However, I believe that there are plenty of storytelling techniques, readily available, that could make a substantial impact on the way we all write, not just academics. Thus, in this entry, I would like to explore one of them; plot structure.

A plot is a term thrown around all the time when talking of stories, whether they are parts of films, novels, or even videogames. Plots are literary devices that describe the elements or events that comprise a story. However, good plots are slightly more ambitious than just parts of a total. Good plots should have consequences. In a way, they are the equivalent of strategies in the storytelling craft. You can also think of them as individual moves on a game of pool. Where you don’t only want to achieve a goal by the end of your turn, you also want to be accurately positioned for the next one.

There are multiple ways to structure plots—but as I hope to convene during these essays, I tend to prefer simplicity, symmetry and versatility. My prefered structure summarises plots into four aspects affecting the actions of the actor(s) in a story; (1) intent, (2) consequences, (3) stakes, and (4) obstacles.

I also like to doodle a lot, so I hope this works.

The intent is arguably the most critical element of a plot. It describes the motivations of someone to do something. A simple question to identify intent is: Why are they doing that? Is it because they want to accomplish something? Or, someone else is pushing them to do it? Or maybe, they need to get something for the next part of the story? Ah-ha! Perfect sideway to the next element.

Consequences, or sometimes also referred to as causality, reflects on the results of the actions in a plot. Again, a simple question to identify consequences is: What would happen after you complete an action? Would the heroes save the world and live happily ever after? Would they find out who stole the thing? Or, would they have the stuff they need to get to the next mission? You can see the symmetry between intent and consequences; however, this is not enough to make a plot.

Let’s take a moment to think about it. Imagine you want to get a better job, so you figure you could to register for some extra classes to improve your skills and achieve your goal. In this example, you can see intent (get a better job) and causality (with better skills you could get a better job), yet these two elements don’t make you want to enrol into a class immediately, we need something else. Here is where stakes and obstacles come into play, and again there is symmetry between them.

Stakes represent what is at risk, why should you act now? Obstacles offer a counterbalance. These are the elements that prevent you from moving or accomplish your goal, what is stopping you from doing it now? Both factors help the story to move and provide a sense of speed or gravity; in general, the higher the stakes and lower the obstacles, the fastest the story progresses. However, such an account would be quite dull. Imagine you are hungry, starving, barely surviving! So you go to the fridge and eat something, and that’s it. Not quite as entertaining as you would expect from the intro, but this serves my point that plots most carefully balance intent and causality, and stakes and obstacles.

Ok, so now that we have a basic understanding plots, what does it all have to do with academic writing? Or any writing for that matter. Well, I believe there are three areas in which this type of mindset help us communicate, maintaining our message informative yet exciting; in a way, tricking the reader into learning something through an engaging story. First, it should help us to structure our message by identifying its core elements; intent, consequences, stakes and obstacles. Second, it should help us balance our message, are the consequences related to our intention? Are the obstacles equivalent to what is at stake? Third, it gives us agency over our message, by understanding the elements and the mechanics of a plot we can experiment, try new formulas, take some acceptable risks to learn something new. In the end, it goes back to the similarity between plots and strategies and the value of having a clear structure; no matter if we are talking about our life (in a CV, for example), an abstract for submission to a journal, or the business model of our company.

In summary, a plot is a conceptual tool, useful to understand the elements of a story, the mechanisms to manipulate those elements, and the logic behind. The structure of a plot helps us frame our message in a way that makes sense, which, in turn, keeps the reader engaged. I also hope that this brief explanation help to understand other related terms, like a “plothole”. No, it doesn’t mean that something is missing, but rather, that there is an inconsistency among the four elements of a plot. For example, when a character says, they are going to do X because of Y but ends up doing Z out of nowhere. We should also avoid these inconsistencies while writing. Another example is a “plot twist”, but I leave that one to you to figure out.

In the same vein, a plot is a part of a story. Some stories only need one plot, while others require a series of interrelated, consistent and coherent ones. Tomorrow, I would like to discuss one of my prefered structures to organise stories, the Hero’s Journey. See you here tomorrow.

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