Over the past few weeks I’ve been sharing a few short pieces, Caterpillars, The House’s Finest Hour, and Scars and Soothing, all of which have shared the same setting and theme, but each have presented a different component of a whole story. There are many ways that a story could be divided into parts, today we’ll be looking at just one of those possible divisions. When written out, a story is nothing more than a collection of words, and the vast majority of those words could be divided into the categories of plot, description, and dialogue.
Plot: In this instance I am referring to the times when you write something into your story for the express purpose of moving the plot along. These are those turning points where something unforeseen comes into the fray so that we can move from one arc into the next. When you are summarizing your story to someone it is the plot that you tell, and it is the skeletal outline you hash out before writing your novel in earnest:
- characters are a family on a farm
- a fire brings them to financial ruin
- they receive an offer of aid from an estranged uncle if they first help him in a bizarre task
Generally these shifts and turns are hidden under layers of character exposition or pretty scenery-painting, but they still show through in the moments when our farming family wake up to see their crops blazing and when they receive the mysterious letter from their long-forgotten uncle, these moments are pure plot. In short, plot is WHAT is told in your story. My previous post called Caterpillars was meant to illustrate this component of a story, as one plot point followed another with only minimal elements of descriptions or dialogue in between.
Descriptions: Here I mean the times you are providing atmosphere and flavor to your text. I call it descriptions, as that is the form it most often takes. It is where you describe the way things look, sound, feel. You take the raw bare-bones idea of the fire burning the farming-family’s fields and you start detailing the way the grain pops in its shells from the heat, the way the charred crop’s ash lifts up into the air and floats softly down like the dreams it had once represented. Descriptions will be the part of your story that come to mind when most people describe how it “feels”. This is the voice, not of a character, but of the author directly, and it is how you leave your fingerprints on the tale. In short, descriptions are HOW you tell your story. My earlier post, The House’s Finest Hour, captures this, where everything was communicated through descriptive text, leaving behind any notion of sequenced plot points or dialogue.
Dialogue: As descriptions covers the text where the author speaking to the reader, dialogue covers the communication that comes from the characters themselves. This communication obviously occurs when they speak, but also when we hear what they think or feel. It is text that is meant to capture the human experience in the story, and as such it is the part that perhaps best grounds the reader to the world. You might read about the events that are described in the plot, you might observe the descriptions of the narrator, but the dialogue makes you feel like you are on the street-level experiencing the events personally. This would be the part of the story where the author concludes describing the physical aspects of the burning fields and shifts to sharing how the father of the family fell to his knees as he felt every past back-breaking labor in those fields afresh, recalled every burden and sweat in perfect detail, now knowing it was all for naught. In short, the dialogue is WHO’s perspective your story is told through. Obviously my exercise in this format was Scars and Soothing, where the entire story was sharing the words, feelings, and actions of the piece’s characters.
Each of these elements is critical to have pinned down before ever starting on chapter one of your story. If you are still trying to figure out these elements while plowing ahead with your first draft then you are building without a plan, and it will rob your writing of consistency and character, and often results in sudden jarring shifts, based on your own changing emotions at the times of writing. I highly recommend due diligence in establishing your plot outline at high detail, in settling on a tone for unveiling your world to the reader, and in understanding exactly which personalities will serve as companions to your reader while journeying through your tale.
The final point I would touch on is that if your story carries a message—something I would argue every story should carry—then each of these three elements should be selected to reinforce that message. If you were to describe your plot in 30 seconds you would want the hearer to perfectly understand what the story is about. When you develop your tone and style, you want it to provide an atmosphere that supports your message. When you design the human experience in the dialogue of your tale, you want the emotions those elicit to tie directly to the message.
As I mentioned before, each of my previous three posts utilized a different element of a complete story, yet each one carried the same theme, or message. That message was of the union of both bitter and sweet, and how the meeting of these two contrasts can be for the greater good. This Thursday I shall attempt to deliver a new short piece, one that uses all three of the components described in this post, that will borrow moments from each of the prior wedding-day pieces, and that will stand as its own complete tale with the same message at its core. Come back then to see how it turns out!