Our detailed character sketches shape and define the people who will populate our story. The completed outline places them in the action and draws them, via our plot, down the roads that converge at the climax and flow into the conclusion. However, the plot’s following the exact route we’ve mapped out can almost be guaranteed not to happen.
Let’s consider why the plot may not take the route we had envisioned by comparing it to the work of an artist who’s recreating a spectacular mountain scene on canvas. In her mind, she knows exactly what she wants to paint; so early one October morning, she heads out to find just the right angle from which to capture the majesty of the landscape. While she’s unloading her gear, the sun climbs over the horizon and dances down the dark peaks in a progressive unfolding of the new day. She positions the easel to allow a panoramic view, then sketches the scene on the canvas as a guideline before squeezing dollops of paint onto her pallet.
Meanwhile, the sun continues its upward trek toward its zenith, chasing away shadows and pulling back the curtain to reveal splashes autumn colors that pop out of the evergreens blanketing the mountains up to the timberline. Barren peaks, like baldheaded sentries, rise above the colorful collar to watch over the valley below.
The artist puts the final touches on the painting as the sun draws the curtain back across the scene and slips behind the mountaintops, banners of pink and blue stretching across the sky to announce its departure. She steps back and views her work in the soft light of dusk. A smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. The picture does not at all depict what she’d envisioned. In fact, it captures an entirely different scene, one of more vivid color, greater contrasts, increased depths. But it’s good, maybe even great. How great? Only time will tell.
What does all this have to do with plot? Everything. The landscape of the story—aka plot—begins in the muted shades of its dawning. Each scene brightens the roads traveled by the unique assortment of characters who meet at the zenith—the climax—and wend their way quickly to the end of the story.
Some might argue that the painting represents the setting, yet the setting, or backdrop, likely will remain more or less as intended throughout the book. The plot, however, will no doubt change as the writer gives each character the opportunity to tell his or her story. Then, just as the artist adjusted the painting as the sun traveled across the sky—adding color, contrast, and depth, the writer adjusts the plot as the light shed by the characters while they travel across the pages gives greater color, contrast, and depth to the story. At the end of the day when the story has been completed, the writer may well step back and smile because it’s good, maybe even great. How great? Only time will tell.
Linda Lane, writer/editor/publisher, thrives on helping other writers to make their stories great. She's edited two award-winning books, and a third on which she served as part of an editing team has been accepted for consideration as a Pulitzer Prize nominee. Her second novel, Treacherous Tango, has just been released, and she's beginning the sequel that will tell "the rest of the story."