DIY MFA: Learning to Plot

What is a plot? According to Brandon Sanderson, the plot is a promise made at the beginning, progress toward fulfilling that promise, and a payoff at the end.

What does that all mean?

In the first few sentences, paragraphs, and pages, you make a promise to your reader. That promise includes the tone. Is it funny? Is it serious? A little bit of both? Is the story written from a tight, first-person perspective where you only see what’s going on from one character’s perspective? Or is it written in third-person omniscient where you get to see a bigger picture? Those are some of the promises made in those first passages. The more significant promises include the “umbrella” plot, the “core” arc, and the character arc.

The umbrella plot is the visible structure upon which the story hangs and the situation in which the character finds themselves. In the first book of The Deed of Paksenarrion, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Paks wants to be a soldier. The entire book is about her struggle to become the fighter she always dreamed of being. She begins in “boot camp,” proceeds into the regular “army,” and finally grows out of the role by the payoff. The character arc follows her progress through the umbrella plot.

The core plot in this series is tied to the umbrella plot, but it is frequently not. The core plot in many stories can be a romance between characters, pulling off a successful heist, or escaping an untenable situation. The core plot is closely related to the personal longing of your main character(s)—do they attain their heart’s desire?

We are all familiar with the character arc. How is the character going to change by the end of the story to get what they want? One of my favorite series, The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, begins with a promise to tell the adventures of a sheep farmer’s daughter who left her family years before. A single page of text tells the reader of the courage of that daughter, leaving open the question of whether she lived or died in her journey.

That’s where the progress begins—and the “kid on a farm.” The promise is of courage. But what happened to the errant daughter of a remote sheepherder? The Prologue hints at a rift between father and daughter but does not explain. Chapter One begins with an argument, which addresses one promise immediately. As the character arc of Paksenarrion Dorthansdaughter is revealed, the promise made in the Prologue is peeled back layer by layer, as are the desires the main character.

I won’t give any spoilers here, but Paksenarrion’s progress through the next two books of the series led her to a grander goal than she ever imagined. This is what Sanderson calls a plot expansion. The original promise is met, but that promise is then amplified to reach an expanded payoff.

The payoff of the plot is to make good on all the promises of the book. As we know, Act 3 almost always begins with a situation falling apart, and the protagonist(s) having to regroup and find the strength to continue. That strength could come in the form of new information, a fresh clue, or trying again with a new approach that will succeed (or not, depending on your story).

Your payoff can come in one of three forms: You deliver what you promised (fulfilling the promise with the payoff); you deliver what you promised and then some (giving the protagonist an expanded payoff); or you promise one thing and delivering something better than what was initially promised (the substitution payoff). When writing the expanded or substitution payoff, you intentionally make the promise smaller at the beginning, which gives you plenty of room during the progress to build up to a natural payoff. These last approaches give the reader everything they expected from the promise plus something new.

So, there you have it, Brandon Sanderson’s take on plot. I’ll go more into plot again next week.

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