A young writer recently asked me for a simple explanation of plot. In common with many novice fiction writers (and with my own younger self), she was mystified by what a plot is, exactly, and how one might go about building one.
The fact is, plot is not something that gets a lot of attention in most writing workshops. The assumption seems to be that plot is an obvious and basic aspect of fiction, and that writers ought to know instinctively how to do it. In some high literary circles, in fact, it’s almost as if the topic, like money or defecation, is not really fit to be discussed in polite company.
The answer I gave the student, which is the simplest explanation of plot I’ve ever heard, can be encapsulated in six letters: “ABCDDE”: Action, Background, Conflict, Development, Development, Epiphany. To illustrate how this works, let’s take a look at Chris Offutt’s excellent short story, “Out of the Woods.” I recommend that you take twenty minutes to familiarize yourself with the story before reading on, although you don’t have to in order to understand where we’re going.
As “Out of the Woods” begins, Gerald Bolin gets the door and four of his wife’s brothers are there:
“It’s Ory,” the oldest one said. “He got shot and is in the hospital. Somebody’s got to fetch him.”
The brothers looked at Gerald from below their eyebrows . . . he still needed to prove his worth.
This short scene accomplishes two principal things. It is a compelling action that draws the reader into the story, and it establishes the conflict, spelling out Gerald’s main dramatic need and placing a bomb under the reader’s chair that will remain there for the whole story. Bringing Ory back is a test for Gerald, and if he does it right it will represent a rite of passage into the family’s well-guarded inner sanctum. Will he be able to do it? At what cost? The stakes are high:
The oldest brother shot him a mean look. The rest were back to looking down, as if they were carpenters gauging the amount of linoleum needed for a job.
The dramatic need established and the action sufficiently locked in, we get some background. We learn that Gerald is thirty and has never left his backwoods county. We learn about the way he dresses: his ill-fitting suit confirms our suspicion that he’s something of a hick. Then we quickly move into narrative description covering his journey out of the woods into the larger world, which is a strange and backward place: he feels as if he’s “watching spring in reverse” as he comes down from the Appalachians; he sees a shooting star and realizes he’s never seen one before because the steep hills have always blocked out the sky.
So far the causality is clear: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes. When he arrives as the flatlands hospital he makes a daunting discovery: Ory has died of unexpected complications from the gunshot wound. This development is compounded by another: Ory died $1200 in debt and Gerald doesn’t have the money to pay it off.
The developments continue. He asks to see Ory’s girlfriend—the one who shot him accidentally in a drunken argument—and when he visits her in jail he experiences a strange attraction to her. She is exotic with her purple half-shaven hair and tattoos and nose ring and multiple earrings that remind Gerald of “a guide for a harness,” and Gerald feels sorry for her; there are hints that Ory was abusive, irrational, an ugly drunk. Then there is a confrontation:
“Why do you do that?” he said.
“No. Cut your hair and stick that thing in your nose.”
“Shut up,” she said. She began yelling. “I don’t need you. Get away from me. Get out of here!”
Gerald experiences a sense of vertigo, realizing that he’s “two days from anything familiar.” To review the causality so far: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes. Ory dead + Gerald meets woman who shot him + is attracted to her + she’s strange and exotic = he expresses concern by asking about her physical appearance + she yells at him = he experiences vertigo and self-examination, initiating the movement toward the final epiphany.
Gerald tells the sheriff he doesn’t want to press charges. The sheriff wants to get rid of the body, but Gerald doesn’t have the money for a funeral home, or to pay off the $1200 debt, and of course he needs to get Ory back to the hills, so he suggests he take the body with him. Causality: Sheriff desires to get rid of body + Gerald lacks the money to do so conventionally + his dramatic need, unchanged by death, to get Ory back to the family + the need to pay off the $1200 debt + the question of what to do with Ory’s car = the mutually agreeable solution that the sheriff will sell the car to pay off the debts and look the other way if Gerald takes the body away.
Gerald starts for home with the body in the back of his pickup; the descriptive passages highlight the disturbing and strangely seductive beauty of the flatlands. He thinks about Ory and purple-haired Melanie back at the jail:
A pair of redwing blackbirds sat on a power line, courting each other, and Gerald wondered how birds knew to go to their own kind. Maybe Ory knew he was in the wrong tree and that’s why he wanted Melanie to wear a wig. Gerald tried to imagine her with blond hair. He suddenly understood that he wanted her, had wanted her at the jailhouse. He couldn’t figure why. It bothered him that he had so much desire for a woman he didn’t consider attractive.
This passage represents a partial revelation of the epiphany: The redwing blackbirds trigger the recognition that he is attracted to the strange, the foreign, the exotic.
A man comes up to Gerald and asks casually about the decaying corpse under the dirt in the back of the truck. The man clearly thinks it’s a farm animal (though Gerald misses this) and speaks casually of renderers, garbage bags, and maladies, as if transporting dead corpses is standard operational procedure in the flatlands. Gerald flees the weird land, resolving not to stop again until he’s home. He passes through more backward-seeming landscape and finally returns to the comfort of the familiar.
The story begins to reach a resolution. As he drives up the home hill Gerald rehearses a story in his mind, making the details acceptable. Ory had quit drinking and found a good job and was engaged to a nice blond girl. He was killed teaching her to shoot a pistol. Gerald’s ordeal is over, and despite Ory’s unexpected death the mission was a success:
Later, he could tell the truth to the oldest brother, who’d tell the rest. They’d appreciate his public lie and he’d be in with the family.
And the story concludes with the full epiphany:
He got out of the truck and waited. Everything was the same—the house, the trees, the people. He recognized the leaves and the outline of the branches against the sky. He knew how the light would fall, where the shadows would go. The smell of the woods was familiar. It would be this way forever. Abruptly, as if doused by water, he knew why Ory had left.
The final passage works because we’ve been prepared throughout the story for Gerald’s realization: the passages describing the beautiful backwardness of the flatlands, for example (“watching spring in reverse;” “He’d been to winter and back,” etc), the inexplicable magnetism of the unattractive but exotic Melanie. And yet it’s credible that this would be an epiphany—i.e., that it’s a big realization of something he didn’t know before—because we’ve seen his innocence in the way he dresses, the fact that he’s reached the age of thirty without ever leaving the county, and his conversations with the sheriff, Melanie, and the man who chats casually about corpses in truck beds.
By the final paragraph the mousetrap has been carefully laid: the lines of causality are clear and inevitable-feeling; the central dramatic need met and the conflict resolved; there are no lingering questions and yet the reader does wonder about the meaning of the story. There have been hints and partial realizations throughout, references to disorientation and wonder at the strange surroundings. The only thing missing is the epiphany, and when it comes one is satisfied and can close the book.
ABCDDE. Simple, right? Now YOU try it.