The Importance of Plot

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal launched their revamped Saturday edition. The paper now includes two sections called Review and Off Duty. The Review section has gotten significant coverage in the publishing trade press, because of the significantly enhanced book coverage. An adapted excerpt from Steven Johnson on his new book Where Good Ideas Come From starts the section. The book reviews cover everything from the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith to The World in 2050 to Chrysler's Turbine Car.

The editors have also added a column called Word Craft which I think will be of interest to anyone who reads this blog. Each week a new contributor will provide a short essay on the art of writing and speaking. In the first run of this column, novelist Ann Patchett talks about the importance of plot. Patchett ends her piece saying plot applies to any kind of writing:

It helps to think through your directions before your departure, to have a compelling narrative no matter what story you're telling, to not skip ahead to the more interesting parts before we are fully able to understand and digest them.

This is a conversation I have been having with all of my clients lately. Skipping ahead is a sin that most writers (including myself) are guilty of. They start their pieces with the punch line, normally a generalization they go on to explain. The trouble is when using this method the writer fails to take the time to get us familiar with their point of view. And by leading with the conclusion, the reader is challenged as to whether they should read the rest of the piece, having clearly been shown the destination.

Take time to develop the plot. I like Anne Lamont's ABDCE structure for this. Start with action, put the reader square in the middle of what is going on. Then, take a step back and provide background for exactly how they got their or why this opening scene is of such importance. Return to the story and develop the story further, providing more details. Then climax the story and resolve the tension. And finally provide the ending, using a clever way explain what you hoped we have learned.

Do you struggle with this?

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