The following is excerpted from June and William Noble’s classic, Steal This Plot: A Writer’s Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism. (The Write Thought recently republished Steal This Plot in our Classic Wisdom on Writing Series.)
There are certain items which become basic to story construction, and we’ve chosen to call them “plot motivators.” They aren’t plots, nor are they dramatic situations. They simply move the plot along and provide drama. There are thirteen in all which cover most available story opportunities for the writer.
But why plot motivator?
Because a plot—the story within a story—without some direction is like a large boulder in a bubbling stream. It’s a lovely scene. You see it, you might even be able to touch it, but it doesn’t move! Plot motivators make a story move, and they are the prime devices by which a writer can steal a plot and make it his own.
Take Benchley’s Jaws. Many have compared it, at least superficially, to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in the sense that there is an unremitting chase or search for a great white fish. Here again we have a similar plot—a human-devouring beast that must be destroyed. But look at what Benchley has done. He has asked “what if…” the scene becomes the south shore of Long Island… the fish is a Great White Shark… the hunters are motivated by more financial reward than anything else….
Yet before Benchley’s plot will really work, he has to ask why! Why must the fish be destroyed? The answer lies in the plot motivator, i.e. vengeance. Ahab in Moby Dick and his counterpart, the fishing boat captain in Jaws have both suffered grievous harm from the great white fish, and so they set out to destroy it to salve their own concepts of revenge. Vengeance moves the plot along; it motivates it!
Following are the common plot motivators that appear and reappear through literature. At any given time, of course, more than one plot motivator can exist side by side, affecting the story. The point is that these are the wheels that make the story go; they are the underpinnings for the various dramatic situations. You can take any story idea, attach one or more of these motivators to it, and you’ll have a plot and a story line.
In no particular order of importance the plot motivators are:
Love and Hate
Grief and Loss
As good as plot motivators are in developing a story, there are times when they need further substance and direction. Think, for instance, about Ernest Hemingway’s well-told story, The Old Man and the Sea. The plot is simple and straightforward: Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, sets out in his small boat to pursue his livelihood, alone and with just the barest of gear. Far from shore he lands the largest marlin he has ever seen, a fish that if he gets to port intact will rectify, perhaps forever, the misery he has endured throughout his life. Eighty-four days he has gone without catching a fish, and now his salvation is at hand!
Enter the plot motivator—survival. Hemingway paints a vivid portrait of Santiago’s fight, not only to land the huge fish but also to get it, intact, back to shore where he would be honored and recognized for such a feat. And it is truly an epic battle for survival, for the fisherman is almost overwhelmed time and time again, first by the huge marlin itself and then by the predators who are drawn to the boat by the trailing blood of the marlin as it remains lashed alongside. Survival is clearly the plot motivator for this story, and a battle for survival is fine story material.
When you are reading a novel or short story, see if you can identify multiple plot motivators. The best fiction writers mix and match plot motivators to make plots complex and rewarding to the reader.
Just a write thought.
Happy New Year.