Saturday, January 8, 2011

Drive the Plot

Lots of people talk about their writing methods. New writers ask, “Where do you get your ideas? Do you outline, or write on the fly?” And one of the biggest questions asked is, “is your book character driven, or plot driven?”

It’s a trick question. The politically correct answer is “character driven,” as explained by this quote here:

“Many of the best novels…are character-driven novels. Character-driven novels center on well-developed characters with whom the reader can connect and empathize. Plot-driven novels too often utilize flat characters because these undeveloped characters are the only ones that can easily be pushed around by a too-carefully outlined plot.”

He has a point, but I think it’s a flawed point. In fact, I think the whole character vs. plot thing is a big mistake. Characters do drive plot. But plot also prompts characters.

Yes, character-driven plots can often be shallow, filled with torrents of action and little emotional resonance or growth. Yup. Happens all the time. But so do books where characters wander around, meditating on their problems, philosophizing about their problems, struggling with their problems, and never actually solving their problems.

I’m going to say something disagreeable. I think you need both a character driven and plot driven story.

There is a natural cycle in the flow of plot that you can probably identify in other books. And guess what? You need both character and plot events to drive it.

Here’s how it works:

An event occurs. (Most books start because of some inciting incident, something that makes the story worth writing about. Stakes are established or raised here.)

A character recovers. (This is where the character processes the event and realizes they need to act. It’s is a short step, and by short I mean it can be a few paragraphs, a few sentences. Or a few chapters. Depending on the length, it often functions as downtime. Stories need downtime!)

A character reacts. (What is the character going to do now that X event has happened to them, and their stakes have been raised? Make the chosen reaction cost something.)

An event occurs. (Back to the beginning of the cycle. After the inciting incident, an event often occurs as a direct result of the character’s reaction. Some events do occur without character prompting, like say, earthquakes, or a new antagonist making their move. However, many events occur because the character changed something in the story, forcing an event on other characters and making them react.)

You can repeat this cycle as much as you want. Sometimes, a few steps repeat themselves: maybe a few events occur, and then the character reacts. Maybe the character does a few things in succession before the antagonist strikes back.

But if too many things just happen to happen, we feel lost in the flow; it becomes meaningless action, and our character isn’t doing anything. Or worse, they do meaningless things that are clearly not honest reactions, but action for the sake of action.

And think of characters who never react, but always recover. Or characters whose actions seem arbitrary. What are they responding to, if they respond to nothing? Emotional revelations? How many revelations can a character have before they feel washed out?

We as readers need an explanation. We need a why, a how-come. That's the point of fiction.

"Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you" — Julian Barnes (Flaubert's Parrot)

We need plot events, because it raises the stakes, and forces characters out of their comfort zone. Without plot there is no ‘because’ to explain why our characters have acted the way they act.

And we need characters to react, or else they don’t tackle the conflicts facing them, never take risks, and as a result, never get resolution.

If you’re stuck somewhere in your plot, take a step back and look at what’s happening. Is your character reacting? Is there an event for them to react to? Is this event a randomly chosen rock you threw at the character in the hopes of forcing some plot out of them, or is it an event that challenges their quest toward the main story goal?

If you’re missing a lot of pieces in this cycle, you might be leaning too heavily on either plot or character to drive the story. Try adding the missing piece and see what happens.

Truly and always,

-Creative A

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