Let’s talk about plot for a moment.
Talia and I spent most of this weekend watching Downton Abbey. By most, I mean nearly all our waking hours. We watched all seven episodes of season one between the hours of 8:30 and 3:30 AM. The next day we began again at 10:30 and took a break at 4:30. Yes, that would be thirteen hours of British drama.
Somewhere around hour eight, I started to catch patterns in how the creator and writer Julian Fellowes was toying with us.
Plot Is The Manipulation of Desire
Good plot is all about messing with your characters’ desire. You give your characters what they want, but you do it too late. You give them what they want, but you give more of it than they can handle. They want one thing, but you give them something unexpected and uncomfortable. Two characters want conflicting things and you give something to one but nothing to the other.
It takes a certain amount of psychopathy to create a good plot.
Something unexpected and uncomfortable
For example, in Downton Abbey, Lord Crawley’s heir dies in the Titanic, and when they find out their next in kin, Matthew, is a middle class lawyer, they invite him and his mother to live with them in Downton. In other words, they didn’t get what they wanted. Instead they got something unexpected and uncomfortable.
Give them what they want too late
Later, just as the family is growing to like Matthew, Lady Crawley gets pregnant, perhaps with a boy who would be the heir of Downton Abbey. In other words, they got what they wanted but so late that it threatened to ruin everything.
Give something to one, nothing to another
Then, Lady Crawley slips on a bar of soap. The fall causes her to lose the baby. Two characters want different things—Matthew wants Downton while Lady Crawley wants a child—and you give something to one and nothing to the other.
The Foundational Question
The foundational questions for a good plot, then, are these:
- What does each character want?
- How can you mess with them?
Spend some time brainstorming about how to manipulate the desires of the characters in your work in progress.
First, go through each character and name something they want.
Then, think of three ways to mess with them.
Ex: Matthew wants to marry Mary.
- But Mary loves the Turkish man.
- Instead, he gets engaged to Lavinia
- But now that he’s engaged, Mary falls in love with him.