A playwright of the 17th century had one crucial advantage over a contemporary one: No distraction by Twitter messages! His disadvantage, on the other hand, was that if you got really unlucky, your whole family was extinguished by the black plague. Well, can’t win them all! But amidst of all of the supposed madness of past centuries lived the man perceived as the greatest writer of all time: William Shakespeare!
For the tickle modern society nowadays finds in Facebook and Pinterest, it could 400 years ago find in Shakespeare’s plays – in fact, in Shakespeare’s times, dock workers were watching his comedies laughing so hard they were slapping their thighs! And while Shakespeare was great in many regards and not so great in a few, today, for the inauguration of this blog and its very first article, I would like to take one of the most famous plays ever written to show you how a masterful plot comes about: Let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth!
In this post, you will find the answer to questions like: What is plot? How do you create suspense? What is the single biggest thing that keeps the audience hooked? and What is Lady Macbeth’s problem? You will also find one of many
There – I just asked some QUESTIONS you might want to know the answers to! You will realize the irony of this bit further down… and in the end, you will also find one of many first-class writing prompts, this time on creating a plot….
You can read the full text of Macbeth for free here
THE BASIC IDEA:
Macbeth tells the story of a nobleman (Macbeth), who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become King of Scotland one day. This might have sparked his appetite for power, for he subsequently murders the king and rules the kingdom with malice. In the end his tyranny becomes so bad an alliance of nobles has to get together to defeat him and kill him at his castle.
Now let’s start out by explaining why an apple is an apple, i.e. answering the question: What is plot?
Plot is the movement of characters over the chess board of the story; it shows us what the figures do and what happens to them. Good plot is plot that is moving the audience: It makes them feel suspense, laughter, anxiety or whatever else (Side note: If it’s a comedy and they only feel anxiety, you have it the wrong way). Plot is everything that happens, on a broader scale.
Additionally, plot will lead to POSSIBILITIES not acted out, which are very important as well, because they make the audience ask themselves QUESTIONS, e.g. the extraordinarily important question: What will happen next?
What MIGHT happen is often more thrilling than what actually DOES happen – you are aware of this if, for example, you have ever been out doing your thing while wondering whether you turned off the stove before leaving the house.
Excitement comes from what IS and from what COULD BE; and what actually is reality, is a little less exciting, because, well, it is already. It’s the unknown that excites us the most, it’s the possibilities: How will your cat and your new pet canary get along? What will Grandmother say when she finds out your new boyfriend works for Burger King? Will drinking horse semen really improve your health?
Questions upon questions.
Once you get the answer, things might become very exciting for a short time, but the joy or desperation will wear off quickly. A question left hovering, however, could tickle you forever…
So what REALLY excites your audience is not the answer to the following question, but the question itself: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GONNA HAPPEN NEXT!?“
So how do you make a plot really fascinating for the audience?
You do it by letting them ask themselves as many QUESTIONS as possible. You see, this is the trick about creating a thrilling piece of plot: The game is about QUESTIONS! The more QUESTIONS the audience are asking themselves and the more urgently they are asking them, the more they will love your story!
Suspense is created by QUESTIONS the audience directs towards themselves (because, well, there is absolutely nobody better around to direct them at…)!
Solving these questions, in turn, leads to new questions, and it is also essential to ask those new questions BEFORE the old ones are resolved! This way you are making sure you have your audience hooked constantly and without any gaps in between, which would mean a lagging plot, or, in the common man’s words, a really boring story.
Dynamics on that chess board of plot lead in a lot of different directions: Usually, characters are intertwined with each other through what they want, what they feel and what is happening (motives, emotions, circumstances). While the plot constantly develops in a dynamic way, new burning questions may arise.
The best questions are the ones to which the reader can’t find an obvious answer and which offer a wide range of possible outcomes and consequences: How the characters might feel; what might happen to characters, unforeseen results of actions, houses blowing up, etc…
Your questions should also come up in your story NATURALLY. They should never feel as if they are just there because of the godlike will of the author! If a prisoner suddenly finds a file on the ground, and there is no cake around it, your audience might feel manipulated and won’t buy into the illusion of your story anymore.
Make no mistake: Besides questions, there CAN also be points in a story which keep the readers on the edge of their seats because of what actually DOES happen. You will usually not see this more than two to three times in a story, even if it has a terrific plot – but you might see it! However, that same story will have you biting your nails down to the bare skin a lot more by additionally putting up its most vital questions well in advance.
So far, you say, this all sounds very theoretical? Now let’s take a look at how Master Shakespeare did it!
THE PIECE OF EVIDENCE:
Speaking weird shit in rhymes, running around under thunder and lightning in wide open space, probably with hunches, crooked fingers and dressed in rags. QUESTION: What is this?
Well, what it is, is an unusual as well as very powerful way to start a play: Notice how an original setting immediately raises a LOT of questions, before even a single word is spoken (Who are they? What are they doing out there? What’s gonna happen next?), while also providing visually exciting elements on stage for entertainment-hungry 17th century, Twitter-less eyeballs (storm, lightning, open space, eerie women). Good shit!
Cut to second scene. We hear war cries and see a king and a bloody warrior laying out a recap of the battle – it’s all very dynamic, but you don’t see the actual fight. So the play even spares the director the hassle of having to stage the battle, which in turn saves him a couple of stuntmen.
Immediately, questions arise: Who is fighting against whom? Who is winning? What do they want? Who was killed? What happened? What’s the king’s mission?
See how the plot starts to unfold almost unobtrusively, while questions, atmosphere and characters engage the audience’s interest and spark their excitement?
We hear about Macbeth before we even see him for the first time – this is, combined with the play’s title, a very effective way to spike curiosity! Question: Who is he? or Who will he be?
We can’t go through every single scene here, or else you will have to witness me chew and digest my copy of Macbeth out of sheer madness, but you get the picture: On a micro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in a single scene, or maybe in an act. On a macro-level, asking questions works to engage the audience in the whole drama and to overall wow them!
It is in the third scene of the first act that the bitches, I mean the witches, predict Macbeth will become king and with their prediction ask perhaps the two most intriguing QUESTIONS of the whole drama:
- Are those crooked women indeed capable of predicting the future (read as: Does fate exist)?
- Will Macbeth indeed become king eventually?
Those two questions essentially amount to the same single one! They will be resolved in the beginning of the third act, when we see Macbeth appearing as king for the first time. Notice how by then, there will have been some urgent NEW QUESTIONS established, to never let the audience off the hook for even one second (Will the nobles ever discover that Macbeth has murdered the king? How will Macbeth cope with his own guilt? Etc., etc…).
The most important question of a play usually reveals the play’s main theme as well. In the case of Macbeth, you could say the play is about what fate means: Are we the makers of our own faith? Can we escape our own psychologies? Is a self-fulfilling prophecy something supernatural, or does it just influence the mind so much it finally fulfills itself? Would you like to know the exact time of your death? Etc…
This is the basic question, and its dynamics unfold into all kinds of different scenarios, while the characters are tied to each other by strong motives and emotions that behave like rubber bands. Those rubber bands, the characters’ feelings and goals, change their forms easily and are constantly stretching out in different directions! Naturally, during this process, a lot of QUESTIONS arise.
Let’s take a closer look at the relationships and “rubber bands” of Macbeth: In this specific play, as the story is centered so heavily around one single character, most questions creating drama and suspense arise from that character and his relationships to other characters, to groups, objects, ideas or even to his own consciousness.
Take his relation to Lady Macbeth for example – what a true asshole she is! She wants to get Macbeth to murder the king by asking him (Macbeth) a question like: “Are you a man?“ I really hope your wife or husband is a little less manipulative… but you can also see what dudes did for pussy even back in the 17th century. QUESTIONS that come to our mind: Will she succeed in convincing Macbeth? If so, will he deeply regret it later on? How will this affect their relationship? What else is he capable of?
You can easily see how the answer to every single one of these questions has the potential to lead the story in a totally different direction. Not only do we not know the answers to these questions, but we don’t even know which one of the possible answers will be explored further. When I read the play for the first time, I got the impression that the whole thing in its entirety would evolve around the question whether to murder the king or not and Macbeth’s feeling of guilt. Instead, Shakespeare wraps up this thrilling QUESTION within the first quarter of the play in order to go on to more fruitful pastures, and in passing raises many more exciting questions: This is one reason why he is so much better than your standard prime-TV time program! With him, you never know what’s about to come, whereas at prime time, five minutes into it you know exactly how it’s gonna end!
Or take Macbeth and Banquo: One rubber band between them is their camaraderie, another one is the witches’ predictions about both of them: How will those predictions affect their friendship? How will they treat each other should they not be equals anymore? Play around with these questions, spin them, transform them throughout the story, pick the most exciting and most realistic ones and shove them into the spotlight of your tale! Let them lead you to the most gripping new questions, before you finally throw the audience a bone and answer the old ones! This will really make the difference between your thrilling tales and a ton of totally lame stories out there!
Or take Macbeth himself and his inner struggles. Now that’s some piece of rubber hotter than Sebastian Vettel’s tires after a Formular-I race! How will Macbeth cope with the guilt? How will his bloody deed transform his character? Denial? Remorse? Will it make him sick? Will he even be able to keep it a secret? Macbeth’s inner workshop, as shown in lengthy (some say too much so) monologues, leaves open space for the storyline to unfold into A LOT of different directions!
Then again, the play also DOES contain the big effects and fireworks for the audience to go “Oooooh!” and “Aaaaaah!” at. Think of Macbeth with fresh blood on his hands, just having murdered the king and returning to his wife, or Macduff at the very end stepping onto the stage carrying Macbeth’s freshly severed, blood-dripping head.
These are the highest points of the audience’s emotions, and even in the best pieces of literature, these moments are few and far between. Those are the golden moments when all the careful build-up of plot and emotion comes together! However, in between the juiciest morsels, there need to be the spices, the tickling and sparkling things pulling your taste buds, which are the QUESTIONS. So think of Macbeth as one big, tasty pot of chili con carne, just with the meat still a bit bloody…
THE AWFUL EXAMPLE:
So after you have seen how it works, here comes how it doesn’t work: This is how Shakespeare should never, ever have done it, no way. Had he done it like this, they would have booed him off the stage, which would have made him so depressed he would have spent the rest of his lifetime on useless shit like twittering about his digestion all day long. Twittering, back then, probably worked with REAL birds, as in messenger pigeons.
William Shakespeare twittering
So there you have it, you better pay attention! As I’m doing this wrong, I will do it really wrong:
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
(Done All Wrong)
The king, Duncan, in his castle, doing his thing (Instagram or whatever). We see him interacting with his sons and with nobility in a friendly way. No problems given, no questions asked, no solutions needed. He has a friendly convo with Macbeth about the weather. He has supper with the nobles. He farts and goes to sleep.
In a short, easy-going monologue, Macbeth tells the audience he has killed the king. He is wearing the crown and is now the new king. Lady Macbeth is happy. Macbeth gets Banquo killed. The new king is a tyrant, but nobody has the otherwise brilliant idea of revolting.
We see Macduff coming towards Macbeth’s castle with some soldiers. They seem like they just want to throw in a light complaint, no more. Suddenly a soldier appears on stage and announces he has killed Macbeth.
(Or, if you really feel some ill will towards your audience: The play indicates a battle, but then just ends without telling who won. The only interesting question asked there after two hours of boredom is one the audience has to answer themselves – please, instead of Macbeth, go and behead the playwright!)
Granted, Shakespeare’s play has much more content, but nevertheless the main point presents itself here in all its glory. Notice all of the interesting questions missing: Will Macbeth murder the king? Will his guilt kill him? Will the predictions come true? How will Macduff react? Much of the basic plot still happens: The king is murdered, Macbeth bullies the country, Macbeth gets killed. But there is no alluding to future events, no uncertainty around the acts or characters, no hovering possibility of doom. No witches. No questions. No fun.
WRITING PROMPTS TIME:
So now it’s time for the first exercise I have ever given on this blog. Take a look at the following story:
A kid with some talent for handicrafts buys a board, paints it red, and by attaching four wheels from an old office chair to the bottom, builds a skateboard out of it. He skates out of his village and over a country road into the woods. Under his arm he has his family puppy, so the little guy can go for a walk without the labor of actually having to walk. It’s a rough ride, and the skateboard gets caught in some roots and crashes hard. The puppy is hurt badly and can hardly walk. The kid quickly wattles a makeshift basket out of some branches and carries his puppy back to the village vet.
Now, I do realize this story is shit, but that’s where you enter the picture: You will make it look like a diamond in the rough! Inject some excitement!
These are the rules: You can’t change anything or leave out any part of the plotline, but you should ADD a lot! Feel free to add anything you want to, including characters, scenes, sub-plots, attitudes, needs, emotions, tensions… and in one word: QUESTIONS!
Edit: For maximum difficulty, take the given beginning and end point from my outline above and only add elements in between them.
Hint: Courtesy of yours truly, this story is especially drained of characters. Add a figure here and there, work out their relationships to each other, and it will work wonders!
You don’t need to write any dialogue or any complete scenes, just put down a rough outline of your story and then let us know. Leave the link to your version in the comments and we can swap ideas about it; other readers might comment on it as well. Oh, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, for you can truly only win – either by putting something great online, or by learning!
Try to think of great plot in terms of QUESTIONS rather than in terms of events. Many important questions arise from the relations between your characters, and above all from what they feel and what they want. Create an outstanding plotline by raising intriguing QUESTIONS. Raise new QUESTIONS before you answer the old ones – this way your audience won’t ever be let off the hook! Let the questions arise in a natural, comprehensible way, so your audience can stay in the illusion.
And there you have it! I hope you got something out of this article – if you liked it, more stuff is awaiting: You can get the brand new, completely free e-book going by the title of “44 Key Questions to Make your Story Look like Hemingway in Earnest,” if you just put your e-mail into the form below. Now go ahead and resolve this article’s writing prompt, so you can walk further on your path to becoming a great fiction writer!
Ride the pen!