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Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Yes, but it is a PLOT?!"

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

Recently, a writer presented me with the following comparison:

Dear Melanie:

Please help me by telling me if the following A & B:

1. Are they each plots?

2. Is there a difference between the plots?

3. Is there a difference between the characters?


"What is about to be revealed to you are secrets of magic and illusion that have been guarded under a code of secrecy since medieval times. Because this magician is breaking that code he is placing himself in great jeopardy. It is for this reason he will be disguised and will be known only as the Mystery Magician."


"You are about to see one of the world's top magicians break his code of silence and reveal some of magic's most closely guarded secrets. That's why, in order to protect his identity you will not hear him speak or even see his face. He will be known only as the Masked Magician."

Thank you.

My reply...

1. Is each a Plot?

Each is a part of a plot because they both deal with the internal logic of the progression of a story. But, of course, neither is more than the logistic set up for a progression yet to come. It should be noted that while "plot" is the internal logic of the story, as it "actually" happened, "storyweaving" is the manner in which the story is unfolded for the audience. So, in stories such as Pulp Fiction, Remains of the Day, and any number of mysteries, the actual "plot" order of events is quite different from the order in which the audience comes into them.

2. Is there a difference between the plots?

There might be. Based on the answer above, it really depends on which differences between the two would later affect the internal logic of the story's progression, and which are simply cosmetic differences in the unfolding of the story, added for flavor.

For example, in version "A" the magician is disguised, while in version "B" he does not speak. Is this a significant point (such as in a mystery story in which it turns out the character is a mute) or is it simply a different way of expressing that the magician is attempting to remain anonymous? The subtle differences between version A and version B might be essential logistic information or just a whim of wording.

Similarly, the first version drops the information that the Magician is putting himself in "great jeopardy," while the second version omits this point. Is that point significant to the plot? Would the same point come out later in version two, just dropped at a different time?

The real proof of the pudding would be in how the rest of the story develops. It is crucial to be aware that an audience may easily misinterpret aspects of storytelling as part of the plot, and my discard important elements of the plot as dabblings in style. Part of an author's job is to ensure that plot can be separated from storytelling by the audience even while integrating the two into a seamless, flowing experience.

3. Is there a difference between the characters?

Which characters: the narrator / spokesperson, or the Magician? First we should note that half of what we see of characters are their dramatic functions in the plot. The other half consists of their attributes that do not affect the plot but create the humanity and flavor of the characters.

For example, in some stories one could replace a suave detective with a rumpled detective. Although each character might act exactly the same in their function in the plot, the flavor of their personalities would be completely different. But in other stories, such a replacement would change how the plot had to evolve because certain dynamics depended upon the personality of the detective.

In version A, the narrator's personality is much more controlling. He (or she) puts himself in the driver's seat over both the audience and the Magician with lines like, "What you are about to see," rather than "You are about to see...," and "He will be disguised," versus "you will not hear him speak."

His (her) approach makes the activity passive for the audience in version A and active in version B. He (she) objectifies the experience in the first version and subjectifies it in the second. Clearly there is a difference between the characters, but is it a logistic functional difference or just difference in the personality? Again, that depends on the rest of the story.

As for the Magician, well that is even more obscure. We have not yet met the man. We have heard a bit about him from the narrator/spokesperson, but what have we actually heard from the Magician and what have we seen him do?

Assuming that the narrator/spokesperson is accurately representing the Magician's personality and function in each version as neutral reporter, then we could, as an exercise, assign the described traits and see if the nature of the Magician changes between the two.

Small points emerge.... In the first version, the Magician is "breaking that code," while in the second version he will "break his code." In version A, there is a universal code and the Magician is going against it. In version B, he is breaking his own code. It is a subtle point, but a significant one. What do we know about someone who breaks the law versus someone who breaks with a personal principle?

In addition, version A infers that the Magician may be "breaking that code" on an ongoing basis. Version B might be interpreted to indicate that this is the very first time he will "break his code." What do we know about a character who makes a career out of revealing secrets of a clandestine organization with specific rules and penalties versus one who is making a break with his moral principles for the very first time?

Again, all of this is speculation based on a very small moment in a much larger story. What I have attempted to do is describe the "potential" differences that might exist between the two, even while acknowledging that in the final unfolding of the story, these differences may only be cosmetic and not substantial at all.