At the time of reading Cress by Marissa Meyer, (which, ultimately, I considered unnecessary as a book unto itself within The Lunar Chronicles), I engaged in a twitter chat with Erica Barmash (@ericabrooke) of Bloomsbury and Andye (@ReadingTeen) of ReadingTeen.net regarding unnecessary extension of plots. Whether this is due to the trend of trilogies, (now given way to “stand alone” novel) or to poor story editing is not the point.
The discussion was personally poignant as I’d encountered it while working on my sci-fi YA manuscript. During the plotting phase, I was drawing out the story across three books. I came to realize that I had a three act structure, each act its own book. After many discussions with my then writing partner, we concluded that to make the book the most exciting it could be, we should collapse the three books into one. And off I went drafting a high-action Book 1. Also, by forcing the three books into one, I compelled myself to originate more, complicated ideas for the subsequent books. In turn, demanding myself to better my act of creation. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” Further, I ran into the issue of not enough plot for the story while reading Linked by Imogen Howson.
Perhaps defining Story and Plot would assist in this analysis. In the simplest terms, Story is what happens and Plot is how it happens(1). Donald Maass’s definition: “Plot is the organization of a story: its events and their sequence” (Writing the Breakout Novel, pg 133, Nook App, iPad Mini) is simple, true enough statement. Robert McKee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting takes a few further steps into Story and Plot. “A series of acts builds the largest structure of all: the Story. A story is simply one huge master event” (pg 41, hardcover) and “STORY CLIMAX: A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change” (pg 42, hardcover). And, more elegantly than either Maass or me, “To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of event and their design in time” (pg 43, hardcover). Thus, Story is what the novel is about (minus the theme(s)) and Plot is how the Story plays out on the page.
Howson’s Linked has a very exciting, high concept premise(2) and is skillfully written on a sentence by sentence level. The novel’s issue lays in its lack of story, in other terms, not enough happens for an entire novel, much less a continuation into a second book(3). The problem with discussing story is the difficulty in pinpointing the moments of its failures. And, like every element of writing, story is intwined with every other aspect of writing. However, there are a few places and components which may be used as examples.
The novel is broken into the simple three act structure delineated by changes in setting. Act one takes place mostly between Lissa’s home and school; act two is in the city while Lissa and Lin are on the lam; and act three is on the spaceship with Cadan. This structural choice is commonly and successfully used in storytelling. However, where Linked fails is in its plot points, or “story events(4)” within each act. Although each act contains a plot point or story event which pushes it to the next act, the novel lacks smaller “story events” within the acts’ scenes. Again, McKee, “A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event” (pg 35). For instance, at the end of Chapter 7, Elissa decides that she and Lin need to get “off-planet” (Howson, pg 118, Nook App, iPad Mini), twenty pages later they’re launched “outside planetary jurisdiction” (pg 138). So, what happens in those pages between decision, action on the decision and fulfillment of the desire? Nothing much. Or rather, a bunch of short scenes getting us from point A to point B, with only a small, easily overcome hiccup in Lissa’s plan. The story’s main conflict isn’t changed, the stakes are not raised, the plan is not (really) altered. Further, the story’s main action and main conflicts do not change, evolve or deepen in stakes or danger.
From the moment Lissa meets her clone, at the end of Chapter 3 (pg 52), the story action is their escape, the pair running from the government. The main conflicts are the girls against the government (extra-personal); Lissa and Lin’s inability to understand one another’s perspectives on their world (inter-personal); and Lissa’s notions of human worth and morality (intra-personal). Like the story action, these conflicts do not change nor become more dangerous. Again, the point of story elements being inextricably bound, in this case story and stakes(5). It could be argued that when Lin uses telekinesis to avoid capture, in turn, putting other humans in danger (in the mall, on the spaceship) is a form of stakes raising. Personally, I disagree because the reader does not care about strangers, and emotional involvement is a key aspect of stakes. So, if strangers die in order to keep the protagonists free, the reader will not be emotionally effected and thus the stakes are not raised. It’s not until the mass exodus of the spaceship’s crew leaves only three or four members on board does the reader become engaged with characters outside the protagonists.
Laid out in a list Linked’s story is too simple:
1. Lissa discovers the reason for her nightmares.
2. Lissa finds her clone.
3. Lissa and Lin run away.
Conclusively, although Linked is a mere 264 pages (relatively short for contemporary YA) and an easy read, there is not enough story or depth of story to be a truly great read. Further, individual scenes do not turn the action, raise the stakes, engage further conflict, or significantly overturn the protagonists long held beliefs. Like The 100 by Kass Morgan, Linked reads as a prelude to a coming attraction.
1: For a more complicated idea on story and plot within the artistic process see On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of Writing “On the Aims of the Artistic Process”.
2: The book’s flap copy: “When Elissa learns her telepathic twin is the subject of government experiments, the girls find themselves on the run with secrets worth killing for in this futuristic, romantic thriller.”
3:Unravel by Imogen Howson released in July 2014. [link] It should be noted that I have not read the second book yet.
4: As defined by McKee: “A story event creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict” (pg 34). “Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next” (pg 34).
5: For more on stakes see The Hunger Games: Stake, Risk & Character.