Sunday, 13 February 2011

Character is Plot

There are many ways to structure a plot, but all plots have the same basic purpose: to reveal something about the character.

What people do tells us who they are.

And actions speak louder than words.

(The word ‘action’ does not mean car chases and explosions, it means any physical movement from turning on the tv to taking a shit to blowing up the Statue of liberty and everything in between)

The specific goal of the plot isn't important, it could be finding the lost Ark of the Covenant, or climbing a ladder to wash a window, the important thing is:
1. What does it tell the reader about the character?
2. Does this play a part in the rest of the story?
3.Is it interesting?

Taking these points one at a time:

1. What does it tell the reader about the character?
The thing that is revealed about the character can be subtle or blatant; big or small.
In the case of a guy climbing a ladder to wash a window, the only thing we learn (so far) is that he's a window cleaner.

2. Does this play a part in the rest of the story?
Here we see if this is a plot point. If in the rest of the story he goes to a bar, picks up a girl and fucks her, then no it wasn't a plot point in this particular plot.
It may have been adding colour and detail to this guy, but it's irrelevant to this particular story.
If, however, he goes to a bar and tells the girl he's a doctor then it is a plot point because it reveals character. We know he's lying to get laid, we have insight into him. Whether this is a good plot point or not is a matter of taste. But it is part of the plot.

3. Is it interesting?
Here it gets tricky. You want the story to be interesting and engaging and satisfying - basically you want an effective plot.

Most of us as readers instinctively know a good story when we read it. But as writers we need to know why.

So what makes a good plot?
Story A
A man wakes up. He is groggy. The phone is ringing. He answers it
"Oh thank God, Mike, thank God. You have to come quickly. They've got your father. Oh God, I can hear them coming Mike please come save-" Click.
Our hero leaps out of bed, grabbing his pants as he goes, and bursts out the door.
Okay, a pretty standard opening. The call to adventure, help me Obi-Wan etc, the hero responds. Nothing wrong with that, certainly nothing to suggest it's a bad story. In the right hands it could be great.

Story B
A man wakes up. He is groggy. The phone is ringing. He answers it
"Oh thank God, Mike, thank God. You have to come quickly. They've got your father. Oh God, I can hear them coming Mike please come save-" Click.
The man stumbles out of bed, goes to the bathroom and turns on the shower. He starts shaving, whistling as he does so.

Now, I would suggest Story B is more interesting than Story A. Both could be great, both could be terrible, we don't know, but in Story B something unexpected happens. In Story A, while we don't know what's going to happen specifically, the actions fall within the parameters of our expectations. It feels familiar but it still has possibilities and we know from experience we enjoy this kind of storytelling when it's done well.
However, Story B tells our expectations to go fuck themselves. Does he not care? Is he involved? Was it a wrong number? The brain goes into hyperdrive.

To understand why this happens you have to look at how the brain works. The brain is obsessed with predicting events and patterns. Whether it's a rat in a maze, a monkey pressing buttons to get a banana or us doing a crossword, when we get things right the brain releases dopamine-we feel good.

In a story when something happens that makes sense, things follow a progression we recognise and it is satisfying, we get a little brain treat.

If the pattern is obvious, if we've seen it all before, the treat is a little less every time we see it — until eventually nothing.

If, however, we get something we weren't expecting the brain goes crazy. Dopamine goes through the roof, we become fixated on figuring out this brave new world. It's how we survive and adapt, by learning. This is why we like jokes, twist endings and gambling. The unexpected but pleasing reward is our greatest pleasure.

You should bear in mind that if you get the brain excited in this way and then fail to deliver not only will your treat be taken away, you will be punished; the brain doesn't like its time being wasted. If in Story B, after a shower and shave the hero then goes to his parent's house and saves his mum and dad from some crazy home invasion scenario without any explanation as to why he didn't rush over, then the reader won't just be disappointed, they'll be mad. The brain will pour all its resources into writing a critique full of mean comments and barely disguised venom (I'm talking hypothetically, of course).

So my point is, a good plot point has a purpose: to reveal something about the character, preferably something not obvious.
Story C
A bunch of ex-Navy Seals plan a heist on a seemingly impregnable bank. They plan meticulously and have various ingenious methods of getting around the high-tech security systems and highly trained security guards. Their plan is executed with brilliance and flair.

We have all read books or seen movies with this sort of scene. If done well it can be very exciting and totally captivating.

Story D
Same bank heist, but this time something goes wrong. Some gadget doesn't work, someone in the bank recognizes one of the Seals, John McClane happens to be cashing a cheque (Die Hard 7: Credit Denied Hard), whatever.

Now the team has to go off book and improvise a way out.

Story D is more exciting than story C. As a reader it's obvious. There's always more interest when you're dealing with fuck ups, we know this from experience, we accept it. But why?

Story E
A man is in a bank on normal bank business and he suddenly sees an opportunity to rob the bank but he has to act immediately and rely on his abilities to pull it off (maybe he's an ex-Navy seal, I don't know, I'm making this up as I go along). He goes for it, successfully pulling off one outrageous move after another.

I would suggest D and E are both more exciting than C, even though nothing goes wrong in E.

The differences is that in D and E we are watching people make decisions in real-time. We like to see them weigh up their options and go for it. Door 1 or Door 2. Sports, game shows, same thing. We want to see the moment the choice is made and we want to see the consequences of that choice and we want to see how the character deals with that.

In Story C we don't see that. Indeed choices were made, but over a long period, with lots of thoughts and advice from others. The only thing we know about the characters is that they are meticulous and hard-working. That's why a scenario like Story C would be used to establish a character as competent upfront at the beginning of a book or movie and because that's all it would reveal it would be short. Once you've made your point that the guys are good you achieve nothing by repeating it by showing them doing the whole heist in detail. Probably you would get a sliver of the heist, the most impressive bit of jumping about; or you'd rush through it at speed.

You want a plot to be effective and this means being efficient.

In CDE I'm using an extreme situation, a bank heist, to make my point obvious, but the actual scenario is irrelevant, only the structure matters.

Please don't confuse the superficial details with the general premise. You don't need a Bond villain or nuclear bomb about to explode to have a good plot.

People DO things that REVEAL who they are

This is the template of all story.

Story F
A man can't sleep. He goes to the kitchen and gets the milk out of the fridge. Milk helps him sleep. But there is only a little milk and if he drinks it there won't be enough for the kids' breakfast. But if he doesn't drink it he'll be up all night and when he doesn't sleep he's an ogre in the morning. His kids will suffer the consequences. What to do?

What he decides will tell us something about him. This is a plot, just as much as the previous examples. You can shift it up a gear in exactly the same way.

He decides he'll drink it, the kids can have dry cereal and they'll be saved a vicious tongue lashing in all probability. As he's about to drink the milk his wife says
"What are you doing up?"
Now he has a witness, he feels ashamed to be taking his kids' milk away in front of someone else, even though his reasoning was to their benefit. What does he do now?

The principle is the same. This is solid plotting. Nothing major is happening. No Nazis, no time bomb.


Elise Fallson said...

Looks like I'm going to have to come back and read from the beginning. When are you going to put all your posts into book form? (:

mooderino said...

@Elise - I'm having enough trouble putting my novel in book form, don't know when I'll have time to trawl through all these posts. Maybe I need an assistant... how do you get one of those helper monkeys?

Unknown said...

The ideal novel combines both elements: a plot that's strong enough to keep the reader interested, and characters who are genuine enough to make the reader care how the story turns out. For dissertation writing services Check out

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