April 8, 2011

The Back Seat Driver

Many thanks for your patience. Sorry I had to miss last week. It’s for a good cause, trust me.

I’m sure you’ve all heard that titular term before, yes? Most of you have probably experienced it at one time or another. It doesn’t even need to be in the car. There are folks who can be backseat drivers in the kitchen, at work, and at school. And definitely on the internet…

If you’re not familiar with the term, a backseat driver is someone who’s not behind the wheel, yet continues to tell the person who is what they should be doing. It’s not all that far off from the old chestnut “those who can’t, teach.”

I’m sure you’ve also all heard about plot-driven stories and character-driven stories. They’re terms that get applied to tales where the focus is either the characters or the plot. Summer blockbusters and best-selling “beach books” tend to be thought of as plot-driven while slow-paced indie films and more “literate” books are often considered to be character-driven.

Now, personally, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a plot-driven story. All stories are moved forward by the actions (or inaction, in some cases) of their characters, thus all stories are character-driven. I think it’s one of those cases where a shorthand term developed which then somehow became a mild pejorative. The usual implication is that if you have a plot-driven story you have crap characters who are flat on the page. That’s why you’ll often see people refer to (for example) “a character-driven horror story” or some such, because the implication is this was just a horror story, or (heaven forbid) a plot-driven horror story, it couldn’t be that good. Being character-driven validates a work, while being plot-driven invalidates it in some way.

Plot-driven generally gets used as a pejorative because it’s a common way stories get messed up. Some writers (or in the case of Hollywood, some development execs, directors, and actors) get so obsessed with individual beats and moments they forget the overall whole. Explosions are cool, but explosions that serve no purpose are just silly. Emotional monologues and character reversals are fantastic, but when they happen at awkward moments with no motivation behind them… well, then they’re laughable. When the story gets twisted to accommodate these things, it tends to get considered plot-driven. I have a list of plot points and I’m going to hit them no matter how bizarre, pointless, or crammed-in they feel.

But back to my driving metaphor…

Plot has to take a back seat to characters. As I’ve said here many, many times before, characters have to be your priority. If I can’t believe in Wakko and Yakko, their story’s dead on arrival. I need to accept their motivations, actions, and reactions. If characters act in an unbelievable way, it doesn’t matter what’s going on around them. Good, well-developed characters must be the driving force in a story.

I’m not saying plot isn’t important, and I’m sure as hell not saying you don’t need it. Anyone who’s been following along here knows how much a story with no plot drives me nuts. But at the end of the day, your audience is going to notice an unbelievable character over an unbelievable situation. So if you know your characters are good, you need to tweak the plot to suit them, not vice-versa.

In all fairness, I’m also guilty of this particular sin. I’ve done it before, I still do it today sometimes, and odds are I’ll do it again sometime in the future. Keep this little fact in mind for your summer reading–the final climactic day in Ex-Patriots was originally two days. Yep, right in the middle of all that’s going on in the last ten chapters, people stopped and went to bed for the night. Seriously. Is that lame or what? Fortunately I recognized that sticking this rigidly to my roughly-outlined plot was injuring the story as a whole and forcing my characters to act unnaturally.

Now, with all that being said, reality has to take a back seat to plot. And we’re out of back seats, so reality has to go in the trunk. Yeah, we could be in a limo or something, but the importance/ seating order is kind of reversed in a limo. That just messes up my beautiful metaphor.

Anyway, at the end of the day, people are reading your work for a good story, not for an education. Anyone who’s reading Dan Brown for an insightful and true view of the Renaissance is in for a major disappointment. Thomas Harris may not be the number-one source for how FBI profilers act. I just had a discussion with a publisher about brain structure which ended with us agreeing my words will sound pretty good to most folks, but hopefully any neurologists will be willing to suspend disbelief a little more than the layman.

You don’t want to bring a really cool plot to a crashing halt by rigidly adhering to facts. You don’t want to be blatantly wrong, but you’re also not writing a textbook. Well, maybe you are, but then most of this doesn’t apply to you. How many phenomenal movie gun battles would lose a lot if the filmmakers counted every bullet and showed the hero reloading again and again and again? If it took nine days for a steamship to cross the Atlantic but I say my Victorian heroine has access to a ship that can do it in seven, is that going to upset anyone?

Well, yes… there’s always someone on the internet who will feel the need to write an essay about the ludicrous degree to which I’ve massaged the facts. Can’t be helped. Just take that one as a given and move on.

I got to hear Ray Bradbury tell a wonderful story once about how he was hired by the Smithsonian to spruce up the script for their failing planetarium show. Their show, he immediately realized, was a dry recitation of facts rather than an exploration of the wonders of the universe. When he turned in his version, he got back a list of notes that was longer than the script itself–and every note was replacing one of his poetic exultations with another rigid, precise fact and an explanation of the fact. When they challenged Bradbury’s statement that the universe was over fifty billion years old, he dared them to prove it.

“So they fired me,” he said gleefully, “for being a smartass.”

And another planetarium happily bought his script.

So… the characters are driving. The plot is in the back seat where it can offer suggestions if need be. Facts are in the trunk–we know right where they are if we need them and they can be heard if they yell really loudly.

Make sense?

Next time I’d like to talk to you about Jenga. Yeah, Jenga. The wooden-blocks game. Trust me, it’ll be cool.

Until then, hit the road. And go write.

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