The F-H System: Creating Plot for Popular Fiction

We’ll look at Foster-Harris’s system for plotting a story, omitting as much as possible his fits of lunacy.  Foster-Harris calls this a formula, and adopts a mathy notation for it, but it’s intuitive, and not something you could work through algorithmically.  On the other hand, as intuitions go, it is pretty formulaic.

Conflict Between Two Emotions

Plot (says F-H) is the conflict between two emotions, and the working-out of that conflict.  And you can use any two emotions.  For example:

love vs. pride

Next you must ask yourself the big question, whether this will be a story with a happy ending, or a sad one.  When a story has  happy ending, this means the main character has made the right choice, and when a sad ending, the wrong choice.  And F-H means the morally right or wrong choice.

For the morally right choice, which will be rewarded with a happy ending, he designates the plus sign; for the morally wrong, the minus sign.  So

love + pride = ?

Represents the plot, “When a character is forced to make a hard choice between love and pride, and chooses right, what happens?”


love – pride = ?

Means, “When a character is forced to make a hard choice between love and pride, and chooses wrong, what happens?”

Now, a couple comments:

It’s up to you to figure out what the “right” and “wrong” choices are.  F-H assures us that everyone except moral perverts know this innately, so it does no good thinking it through.  It has to be completely intuitive.

This is not actual addition or subtraction; it’s not “proud love” or “self-debasing love” that we end up talking about.  It’s conflict, with the right (“positive”) decision reached, or the wrong (“negative”) decision.  This means that

love – pride = ?   … and …

pride – love = ?

Are the same thing.  You can work out some difference in the way you use them, of course, but I’m presenting F-H’s analysis.

Embody the Conflict in the Main Character

You must not, H-F says, compartmentalize the conflict by embodying  the emotions in two different characters.  The main character must feel both emotions strongly, and must almost choose wrong.  Or, if it’s a sad story, he must almost choose right. 

From here on, H-F talks exclusively about happy stories, with a correct decision made.  He mentions sad, minus-sign, stories only to say that they’re the opposite of happy stories, although there are times when that’s problematic.  The only other kind of plot he addresses are what he calls “literary plots,” which he gives such a tortured accounting of that I won’t address it.

But, this is a pretty good system, for what it does.  For example, if he had followed his own advice in the dreadful woman’s magazine story he outlined (see the last post), and actually put the two emotions into the main character, then that story would have been much better.  But, not only does he divide the two emotions between the romantic couple, but he makes the one character who feels at least a little of each emotion, the woman, not the main character.  It’s her doctor-boyfriend who makes the decision, and is therefore the main character, despite not feeling the conflict.  (And, that story is supposed to be “marital love + social pride = ?” but how the doctor’s decision reflects marital love I can’t fathom.  He seems to have confused who the main character was.)

After the Decision Comes the Darkest Hour 

The Main Character makes the right decision — chooses love over pride — and as a consequence of this, everything seems to go wrong.  This is the character’s “darkest hour.”  In his second book, Patterns, he claims that the decision must always be an apparent self-sacrifice, to make it a good Christian story, but that over-reaches even his own examples.  More accurately, our main character acts with full awareness of the consequences.

Also, our character must act reflexively, without calculating the consequences, and in the face of what reason dictates and what he has been telling himself he will do.  And then everything goes wrong.

If you’re trying to map this to the classical, Aristotelian system, the emotional conflict comes first, followed by complication (attempts to mediate the conflict fail), followed by the climax (things come to a head and the character makes a decision), falling action (darkest hour), the crisis (things turn around, which we’ll talk about next), and the happy ending (where both emotions are fulfilled).

Things Turn Around

After the darkest hour can get no darker, things turn around as a direct consequence of the main character’s right decision, and this leads to a happy ending.  Again, for the ending to qualify as a happy one, which is necessary for F-H if the character has made the right decision, then both emotional needs must be satisfied happily:  through the willingness to make a personal sacrifice to do the right thing, by making the right decision reflexively, through some twist of fate the character actually makes no personal sacrifice at all.

Now, if it’s a sad story, then F-H says the character makes the wrong decision, things seem to go better and better, until the crisis when, as a consequence of their own bad decision, they lose everything, and neither emotion is fulfilled.

Other Characters Face the Same Problem 

To the extent other characters are important enough to develop their inner life — so, not the single incompetent guard, but the love interest, the best friend, the villian, and so on — you cause them to face little versions of the same problem.   Thus, the story from the love interest’s point of view is also some variant of “love + pride = ?” while the villian’s story is “love – pride = ?”

The villian, of course, makes a bad choice, and suffers for it.  In a sad story, the adversary is the better man, makes a righteous choice, steals the girl, etc.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the System

On the down side, this is by its nature a recipe for terribly preachy stories.  But, it’s the only way to tell stories that are both fair and emotionally clear.   So, it makes for flat, shallow art.  But, the art it makes for is also emotionally salient and reassuring.

Therefore, it seems advantageous to learn this system, even if we don’t intend to write pulp, because in learning it we learn the basic emotional responses people have to stories.

A major advantage of the F-H system is that it is productive.  The classical, Aristotelian way of looking at plot is an excellent tool for analysis of an existing work, but it doesn’t tell you how to begin writing a story.  It tells you you must have conflict, but not how to find it.

Enriching the System

Honestly, most people don’t like to see good, sympathetic characters tormented for no reason, nor sinister, unlikable characters rewarded undeservedly, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with preachy horrible stories.  There are dimensions of freedom within this system, which F-H does not address.

It seems that stories must be mostly fair and mostly clear, emotionally, but there is some lee-way.  Secondary characters can be victimized unfairly; Hollywood does it all the time.  Less-evil henchmen can get away, not with murder, but with accessory to murder, as long as it wasn’t someone we cared about.  It seems there are emotional tolerances of some kind.

Authors often play around with audience sympathy.  We will tolerate bad things happening to someone we like, if we can see they brought it on themselves:  and evil sympathetic characters are often very popular.  (Characteristically, they come around just before they die.)  Darth Vader is the obvious example.  Lloyd Alexander, in Taran Wanderer, if I recall, had the main character working for an evil, clever king, who was sympathetic and on the good guys’ side.  And that’s a children’s book.

Another dimension of freedom can be found in the cause and effect patterns.  You’ll see that, for the big choice to turn things around after the darkest hour, the F-H system requires delayed effects, or, better, a series of effects, like a Rube Goldberg machine.  You can have the thing in outline look like an F-H story, but have everything look wrong when it’s examined; only to find, on a very careful working-through of the plot, to find the story adheres to F-H rules in a complex and even terrifying way.  You can look at Hamlet that way, and the effect is terrifying:  what if the world is so rigorously fair that there’s no hope for any of us?

So, the F-H system results in the simplest version of an emotionally salient story.  I endorse learning it, without endorsing adhering strictly to it.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 9:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] IF? – Applying the F-H system to IF In the last blog post, I reviewed the Foster-Harris formula for creating (let’s face it) pulp plots.  I argued […]

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