Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Plot Thickens

By Joe Moore

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

skeleton1 When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path were straight and level with smooth sailing, the plot would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

When you begin working on a new story, do you develop your plot or characters first? Do you believe that a book can be primarily “plot driven” or “character driven”?

15 comments:

  1. Joe, yes, I believe a book can be termed "plot driven" or "character driven," but in the end either type must be about a character in crisis. In the former, the obstacles are mainly outside the character; in the latter, primarily inside, though in both types "events" happen (the plot).

    I've heard some writers say that they want to eschew "plot" and just profile a really interesting character. My answer is that true character is only revealed in crisis. Would you care to spend a whole book with Scarlett O'Hara sitting on her porch or taking barbecue with the Tarleton twins? I thought not. But force her to save Tara during the Civil War, now that gets interesting.

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  2. This is an awesome post. Bookmarking it. "what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas." Great.

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  3. As to your questions, I myself start with characters, then work on "what happened".

    I know certain books have more emphasis on character or plot, but I can't imagine a good book that was devoid of one or the other.

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  4. I generally start with a major concept that I think would make an interesting story that I'd like to read. From there, I develop the main characters, then start setting up the plot.

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  5. You’re right, Jim. It’s got to be about the characters. The books that might come close to being considered plot driven are action/adventure series in which there is little or no growth in the protagonist from beginning to end. A good example might be James Bond. The Fleming books lean more toward the plot to carry them while Bond is basically the same person at the end that he was at the beginning. That’s not to say that Bond is not interesting or a fully-fleshed-out character, but he is pretty much the same person no matter what book you pick up.

    Thanks for the kind words, Elisabeth. I agree that a great book must find a perfect mix of plot and character. The genre also contributes to which way the story is constructed.

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  6. I work the same way, Kathryn. My co-author and I are going through that exact process right now. We've devoted a great many pages in our outline to the main characters and their backstory. Now we're doing a point-by-point plot development outline simply asking "what happens next". Once we've walked our way through the entire story and have a pretty good idea how it will play out, we'll start drafting chapters. Everything is subject to change, but going through the outlining exercise of characters then plot, it gets us closer to the story from the get-go than flying by the seat of our pants. We've tried that method and found it always equates to multiple false starts.

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  7. Outlining saves me everytime! I think of both a character arc and plot - trying to do what Jim was saying - place the characters in crisis and see what they're made of! My plots always evolve as a result because of my characters' reactions - so I guess I'm more character than plot driven...

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  8. I usually have a premise to launch the story, then come up with a major character or three. How the case gets solved or crises acted upon then depends on those characters.

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  9. Gee, I thought all you did was open the corral, turn your characters loose, and then follow along with a pad and write what happens to them. If I hear that bull one more time from one more (I'd best not use any of several adjectives that spring to mind here) author...

    With thrillers I believe you have to have some form of an outline. Without one I go off willy-nilly on tangents. It can be as simple as a line drawn in my mind connecting a series of twists and turns. I like to figure out where I'll put rug pulls and an atom bomb plot twist at the end, if one is available on the black market.

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  10. By the way, Joe. Great new picture. Very sexy.

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  11. I develop the plot and characters, but find, as I write, that plot sometimes requires a change based on my characters and my characters sometimes require a change based on my plot. I imagine there are writers good enough to end up with exactly the characters and plot they began with, but I'm not one of them!

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  12. Thanks, John. It's my "no more Mr. Nice Guy" look.

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  13. Ron, that's where a lot of those "I'll never use an outline--it stifles my creativity" writers go wrong. Of course, things are going to change. It's like using MapQuest to chart your roadtrip. You can stay on the main route or take an off ramp now and then. The outline is always there to help you get back on track, no matter how many side trips you take.

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  14. I like the way you folks here make me think about what I'm doing.

    In my stories I tend to start with an individual character as the focus then unravel the scenes around them allowing the plot to come in to focus by the characters actions and reactions. In that manner the reader identifies with the characters on a basic level in the beginning and the relationship with the character amplifies as they discover the depths of the character through their interaction with the thickening plot.

    hmmm...saying it that way makes it sound like I know what I'm doing, so where is the publishing contract?

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  15. Everyone writes their own story in their own way. Some are successful. Getting published is a whole different ballgame than writing. Knowing where you are going allows you to get there however you see fit. I f

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