So here we are at the third blog addressing how to write political-themed fiction without preaching to your audience. How to stealthcon, in essence: slip inside the reader’s mind with a great story and then, POW! drop the political payload inside the castle walls in such a way that the reader is forced to actually consider your idea.

What is a plot, anyway? It’s essentially a sequence of linked causative events involving a hero or heroes in which something changes. All three of these elements are important. This is why the play “Waiting for Godot” does not really have a plot – nothing changes (and the story was designed to work that way, too.) Or why the alleged “shortest story ever written” (For sale: baby shoes, never worn.) is not a plot but rather a tragic story beginning – no hero, no change. Specifically, these six words compose the question(s) asked at the beginning of a story that was never written – what happened to the baby? Who is selling the shoes? How does this event change the hero?

But I digress.

In the earlier segments, you should have determined (and forgotten, don’t forget!) a theme and created a compelling hero. You will have already started forming your plot from these two elements, too. Plot is inextricably intertwined with character and theme, and often with narrative style (epistolary/letter form? First person? Potboiler? Tongue-in-cheek humor?) and with milieu (you can’t write a war novel without a war.) So start with the situation you have RIGHT NOW.

The Meaning of Plot

Plot, in terms of storytelling, is defined as the sequence of events. But the word is shared with other meanings: a plan to commit some evil or complex deed, for instance, is a plot. Points charted on a graph – that’s plotting too. Well, story plotting is a plan for a complex deed, and it can be plotted on a graph, too.

For instance, the classic story plot pattern is the Aristotelian plot: three or five acts (for a beginning, middle, and end) with action rising to a climax, then a rapid denouement (fall of action, usually abruptly and off a cliff) and a satisfying ending. It looks like this:

But that’s a very limited and limiting way of looking at plot, especially with longer works like novels. Most writers work with something called the “Cinderella plot structure” – not because it feels like you’re working for your wicked stepmother, though it does, but because it’s the same structure the classic fairy tale Cinderella follows.

Janet Burroway in her outstanding textbook Writing Fiction* described this as a lightning-bolt pattern – it jags up and down. Each plot point leads to rising action, then a sudden mini-denouement as the hopeful upward trend falls. Next, though it’s not plotted on the structure, there’s a retreat and regroup followed by a new plan. This is also called the scene-and-sequel pattern – the scene is the segment with the new plot point and rising action to the peak, and the sequel is the mini-denouement and new plan.

  1. Cinderella is the daughter of a wealthy couple –> her mother dies
  2. Her father marries a new wife –> the stepmother turns out to be mean, and then Dad dies.
  3. Oh, well, Cinderella is still wealthy –> Stepmom squanders the wealth and uses Cindy as a servant.
  4. Cindy grows up kind and beautiful –> so she is abused and forced to sleep in the ashes.
  5. One day, Cindy and her sisters get an invitation to the ball –> Stepmom says Cindy can’t go.
  6. XX –> Cindy weeps in the garden, despairing.
  7. But Cindy has a godmother, who equips her to go –> but only til midnight.
  8. The prince falls in love with her –> but she has to leave, even losing her shoe.
  9. XX –> The prince decides she is the only woman he could ever consider as a bride.
  10. Prince seeks her out –> Stepmom hides her
  11. She manages to escape, and the shoe fits. Happy ever after.

You can see that the scene/sequel does not work perfectly, most prominently at the points marked XX when she weeps in the garden and when the prince decides to marry her. These imperfections are called turning points or dark moments, places where the stakes are raised even higher and tension is ramped up in the story. I’ll address this later, but you can see that rising action increases tension, making the reader increasingly invested in the story.

THIS is what a plot does.

What About That Theme?

Your theme has now transformed into “this thing I want to explore in a story.” You want to talk about the 2nd Amendment? Cool. Again, FORGET THE THEME. If you have constructed your plot properly, the theme is hidden throughout the plot of the story and your hero’s actions will bring it out. It will emerge most prominently during those turning points and at the end of the story during the climax. The best part? The story will do all the proselytizing work for you.

Do not indulge your urge to share more about the theme. There will be no monologuing. There will be no showing off how much you know about the topic. There will be no citing the 2nd Amendment, nor will there be even one talking point from the NRA.

For you now have a plot and a hero.

Your epic hero is now just a guy – with a gun. Or in need of a gun. And only that gun will solve his problem.

It’s a father out in the Alaskan wilderness keeping his family fed over a harsh winter with only his hunting rifle — and federal legal limitations on ammo purchases since the rollback of the Second Amendment have ensured he is running out.

Or it’s a rape not-victim, a woman who stopped a rape using a gun and now needs to defend herself from a charge of murder in a biased liberal courtroom.

Or it’s a black minister leading a community militia to protect their property, homes, and lives from a racist mob in the 1950s. (This really happened in Oklahoma City.)

Or it’s a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto frantically hiding a gun he took off a murdered SS officer, forming the beginnings of an escape plan in his head.

Do you see what I mean? It’s not about the theme. It’s not even about the 2nd Amendment. It’s a story, not a lecture. It’s about a specific hero in terrible, terrible trouble, and the situation just happens to involve the need as well as the right to bear arms, whether that right is being exercised, under assault, or eliminated.

So you have your hero in terrible trouble, desperately needing a gun or answering for the use of a gun. Now what?

You focus on the story – on the plot, on the movement and change and rising tension and action and the sudden tense climax. You do not bring in other issues. For instance, the not-rape victim could easily bring in the issue of women’s rights and how epically ignorant is the #MeToo movement’s insistence that men simply learn not to rape. But you don’t do this. Why? Because it muddies the waters – and instantly becomes preachy.

Forget theme. Create the plot. Tell the story. Focus. It’s pretty simple, for something that’s super-hard.

Exercise: Write that story, or at least start it. Do NOT do any of the don’ts in this article. Try to keep it short and pithy – but if it just desperately has to be three thousand words or three hundred thousand words, let your story seek out its own length.

You will probably fail the first time around. Like your epic hero, do it anyway, and do it boldly. Eventually, the story will work.

References: My earlier posts.

* If you choose to purchase the Janet Burroway textbook mentioned above, for G-D’s sake do not support the collegiate-industrial complex by paying a hundred bucks for it! This 9th edition contains approximately the same information as the earlier printings, and they can be had used for just a few bucks. I highly recommend either the 1987 first edition, which was what I used in college, or the excellent third edition.



Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Images via Shapechangers and UserContent1