The Enchanted 15: Plot

This post, from Jennifer E. Pierce, originally appeared on her Just Jen blog on 8/4/09. In it, she proposes that there’s really only one ‘plot type’: protagonist overcomes obstacle.

Narrative is not an exclusively literary domain–narrative, according to Mark Turner ( The Literary Mind 1996), narrative pre-exists language and the structure of narrative is the way we begin to make sense of our world as a body who exists in time and space. 

Drama–which is the earliest form of the novel–is the essential motivator in teaching us to move, think, and express ourselves in language.  What is drama?  Drama is a protagonist overcoming an obstacle.  A baby sees a toy.  The baby imagines itself with the toy in its grasp.  But there is an obstacle–the space between the baby and the toy.  The baby must imagine itself overcoming the space between it and the toy in order to learn to crawl and overcome the obstacle between itself and the toy.  This is a cognitive schema known as SOURCE-PATH-GOAL.  ( Dora the Explorer uses this schema all the time and this is the secret to the show’s success.  The map repeats over and over: "River-bridge-Grandma’s house!")  
From that moment of triumph, conquering the space between herself and the toy across the room, the baby then begins to project that experience onto the world around it and it is through this that the baby begins to make the world intelligible.  This is the essence of story.  
So, concludes Turner, what was once consider the domain of optional literary considerations, is now understood to be the essential operation of mind.  The elements of plot are not exclusive to novels, plays, and movies.  They are the essential components of reality as we perceive it.  
Some people experience disappointment when they realize, in terms of plot, that there are no original plots.  Every story can find its roots in another story.  A lot of writers I know struggle to make their plots original, to find a story that hasn’t been told–but the struggle is fruitless.  The essential elements of plot remains the same.  Some say there are only  seven plots, others 30,  others 20.  But there is actually only one plot–and that is overcoming an obstacle.  

Once we grasp this essential idea–and the variants on this theme–it shouldn’t disappoint, it should actually free you.  Establish the obstacle and write against it.  Though I know most of you reading here are writing fiction and the application is obvious, this is even so of non-fiction.  The best writing establishes an obstacle and overcomes it through argument and eloquence of expression.  The organization of the writing only falls into place if it is a step-wise process of overcoming a clearly defined obstacle.  

Read the rest of the post on Just Jen.

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