How Stories Work, Part 1: Plot Economy

I’ve spent a long time reading about storytelling. My guiding questions are: “How do stories work?” and “What makes one story better than another?” This is the first in a series of essays about what I’ve learned.

From Unity to Economy

  • A core dynamic of story structure is the balance between economy and complication.
  • Aristotle defined the “classical unities” or time, place and action. Aristotle was writing about what we today call Ancient Greek drama. He argued that these plays should take place in a single day (unity of time), in a single location (unity of place), and have a single storyline (unity of action).
  • These unities express the idea that stories require cohesion and focus. Clarity sharpens a story’s impact; sprawl blunts a story.
  • Today, there are many more forms of stories than just drama as Aristotle knew it. We have novels, tv series, comic books, etc. In these media, Aristotle’s unities rarely make sense — novels, for example, often have multiple plots that span long periods of time and many places. If we generalize Aristotle’s unities to what I call economies they apply to all stories. I use the term economy in the sense of thrift or frugality.
  • Economy of time: a story should occur in as little narrative time as possible.
  • Economy of place: a story should take place in as few locations as possible.
  • Economy of action: a story should be consist of as few storylines as possible.
  • Chekhov articulated a similar idea: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This idea is referred to as “Chekhov’s gun.”
  • Economy is a fundamental virtue in any kind of creation. If you open a watch, you will not find any extra parts or gears. Little is accidental in nature either — even a zebra’s stripes serve a purpose.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Plot Economy

  • We can further generalize from Aristotle’s three unities to what I call plot economy. Plot economy is the idea that the virtue of economy applies to all aspects of a story’s plot, not just time, place and action. It applies to: characters, places, things, ideas, relationships, events, scenes, storylines, conflicts, desires, problems, values, stakes, themes, tone, etc.
  • However, plot economy applies only to the plot, not to the actual substance of a story’s media. If you are writing a novel, the media is text. Plot economy has nothing to say about whether your writing style is verbose or terse like Hemingway.
  • Consider for example, economy of characters or cast. If Luke having one mentor (Obi-wan) was great, why not give Luke two mentors? Why not a dozen? Because that would dilute the characters’ development, their relationships and audience investment. Yoda appears only after Obi-wan is gone. Likewise, the emperor emerges only as Vader starts to slip out of the role of villain. Every character needs to serve a valuable purpose and the shorter the story, the fewer characters it should have.
  • Similarly, there is a (separate) economy of character. The “character” of characters should not be any more complicated than it needs to be. Han Solo is a cocky rogue because it makes him a fun sparring partner for naive Luke, headstrong Leia and earnest Obi-wan, and he’s a cynical lone wolf because it positions him for his turn toward loyalty and idealism. We don’t know anything about Han’s family because it’s not relevant.
  • And so forth — plot economy applies to all elements of the plot. Stories suffer equally from unnecessary scenes, storylines, themes, etc.

Economy vs. Complication

  • Economy is not a virtue in the extreme. The most economical plot would take place in a single instant, in a single place, with a single action performed by a single character: “Alice blinked.” Such an extreme is ridiculous.
  • Economy is balanced by complication. “Alice blinked. Bob blinked back.” Complication enriches a story. Economy gives it focus and cohesion. Plot development, then, is the interplay between these two qualities.
  • The ideal story achieves both richness and economy by developing a “dense” plot that wrings the most value out of the fewest possible elements. One way to do so is to use plot elements with synergy, that work together well. Another way is to use elements that serve multiple purposes.
  • Plot economy only allows an author to introduce a new plot element (e.g. a house catching on fire) if it serves an important purpose. We want actions that provide the greatest value while introducing the least additional complication. You don’t set a house on fire in a romance unless it serves as an opportunity for the lovers to meet or reconcile, etc. On the other hand, it’d be strange to write a romance involving a fireman that didn’t have various fires. But even then, the fires must serve the plot.
  • How might that work? Let’s consider an example in the style of a cliché Hollywood movie. The lovers meet during a first fire when she (a female fireman) rescues him from a burning building. They fall in love. She is injured during a second fire, terrifying him. He, afraid of losing her, demands that she quit her job; she refuses and responds to a third fire. He breaks up with her. A fourth fire reconciles them. Perhaps she rescues someone he cares about, or perhaps he himself chances upon a fire and dashes inside to rescue a child.
  • Let’s examine how the fires work in that example. First, the fires bring the characters together — the “meet cute.” Second, the fires are coherent with the firefighter’s character, namely her occupation. This is an example of economy of theme or milieu. A story about art dealers might revolve around the theft of an artwork. Third, the fires are opportunities to demonstrate and develop the character of the characters (their courage, fear, selflessness, grace under pressure, loyalty, personal style, etc.) and their relationships (friendships, respect, trust, etc.). Fourth, each fire punctuates a plot point of their relationship and the story’s conflict. The first fire serves as an inciting incident for the plot (girl meets boy). The second and third fires develop the core conflict (girl loses boy). The last fire serves as a climax for the narrative and an opportunity to resolve the conflict (girl gets boy back). Fifth, the fires are inherently dramatic, provide visual spectacle, etc. Romantic stories are particularly thirsty for this kind of action, as they tend to be talky. Lastly, the fires give the lovers plenty to talk about in the other scenes. This function is most apparent in soap operas where the writers produce a slow trickle of plot points but space them out with a dozen other scenes in which the characters talk the plot points to death. This demonstrates how every element of a plot should serve in as many ways as possible.
  • Plot economy is a lens through which we can see the plot more clearly. It prods us to ask: could we cut any of the four fires in the story above? Not without breaking the arc of the story. And if we’re tempted to add a fifth fire, plot economy demands that we justify why.

Plot Economy vs. Inciting Incidents

  • Inciting incidents are an important exception to plot economy. That’s because inciting incidents help establish the story’s premise. A premise doesn’t have to be probable or coherent.
  • Plot economy applies not just to plot elements (e.g. characters, etc.) but to qualities of those elements. For example there is an economy of the improbable. The improbable consists of coincidences, miracles, people changing, people acting out of character, people acting against their own self-interest, etc. These elements threaten the credibility of the plot and should be minimized.
  • Many inciting incidents deliberately violate the economy of the improbable — audiences will accept wildly improbable situations so long as they occur at the outset. Winning the lottery at the start of the story is fine; it’s the story’s premise. But winning the lottery later is Deus Ex Machina.
  • Similarly, inciting incidents can violate economy of genre. The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is the only supernatural element in Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t violate economy of genre. The play remains a tragedy, since the Ghost serves only to incite Hamlet to action. If, on the other hand, the Ghost were introduced in the last act, it’d be extremely jarring.

So Then

  • Plot economy may seem like an oblique, abstract concept but it pinpoints one of the most common patterns of problem in stories.
  • A story is a short, cramped thing; there’s never any time or space to waste. This is true even in a story that spans a series of novels.
  • An elegant story structure can’t be had using a “kitchen sink” approach — emptying your cupboard into a bowl is not a recipe.
  • Plot economy is a useful lens for writers, editors and consumers of stories. When writing, it usefully inhibits us. When editing, it guides our focus. As an audience, it clarifies why a story works or doesn’t.
  • Plot economy not only demands that we justify every element of a plot, it asks us consider how a plot’s elements do or don’t work together.
  • Popular (in both sense of the term) stories are well-written in the sense that they possess qualities like plot economy. Examine any classic film or novel and you’ll be surprised to find how much “work” is being done in every scene.
  • Plot economy is a strong constraint and it has broad implications for story structure. Economical plots will possess many traits in common.
  • William Faulkner (or was it Arthur Quiller-Couch?) said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Economy is the reason why.

For another take on this topic, see this article on TV Tropes.

If you’re new to the topic of how stories work, I suggest starting with Story by Robert McKee. In terms of the subject of plot economy, David Ball’s Backwards & Forwards is a useful discussion of how the elements of a play fit together.