Wow, talk about running late. All of January with no posts. Sorry about that. Start of the year and I’m already struggling for stuff to talk about.
Well, that’s not true. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to blather on about, but I sometimes worry that I’m not really up to the task. There’ve actually been a few topics I’ve set aside when I realized I couldn’t quite articulate the ideas I wanted to get across. I don’t want to try to explain something, do a poor job one way or another, and actually make things worse for anybody. “I’m not sure if he was serious about that whole ‘mellonballer’ thing but what the hell, I’ll try anything if it gets my foot in the door.”
Another way to look at it is I’m worried the decisions I make here might have a negative effect on you out there. I mean, the goal is to have an effect, yeah, but hopefully not one that has you tossing your laptop or burning your idea notebook. I’m hoping this’ll be an overall encouraging, educational place, and my actions will help you out.
And this, if you didn’t guess, is my clumsy lead-in to this week’s topic.
I’ve talked several times here about the idea of plot and story and how the two bounce off each other. Really simply put, plot is what happens outside my character, story is what happens inside my character. Plot forces my characters to make decisions and adapt. Story is that growth and change, and how it leads them to make different decisions and take different actions. Which then, in turn, affects how the plot progresses. Makes sense?
Personally, I think this is really helpful to have in mind when people start arguing about plot-driven vs. story-driven narratives (I’m using narrative here to avoid the confusion of using story vs.story). If I’m not having this back and forth—if plot isn’t driving story which is driving plot which is driving story—then what is making things happen?
Consider what we usually think of as “character-driven” narratives. If there’s isn’t some outside influence forcing them to adapt and change… way are they changing? Truth is, without outside pressure most of us tend to just sort of stay the course. We need a little nudge or maybe a hard shove to get us out of our ruts, and it’s not really possible to shove yourself. Sure people make random decisions sometimes, but if somebody in my narrative does something wildly out of character… well, I mean it’s clear that decision didn’t come from inside the character, right? So if they decide to change without any sort of outside influence—without a plot—where are the decisions coming from?
Well, they’re coming from the writer. I mean, yeah, the narrative always comes from the writer. But in this case it’s coming directly from them without bothering to guide that motivation through a plot.
Another point worth mentioning—an all-too-typical thing in character driven narratives is when what little plot there is comes to a dead crashing halt for twenty or thirty pages so someone can reminisce and/or lament about… well, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. And they can do this because there’s no actual outside stimulus, nothing urging them into some sort of action. Yeah, the bank’s foreclosing on the farm, the tractor broke down, the dog’s gone missing, mom has cancer, but let me tell you about that time Lizzie Metcalfe invited me to the school dance and I turned her down. Y’know… that’s always gnawed at me. Especially right now, with all of this going on. I mean, isn’t life just one big school dance when you really think about it…?
No? Okay, well, never mind…
When the plot bends or twists to shape itself around my character, it doesn’t feel like anything outside of my character has any real agency, does it? Yeah, my protagonist should have agency, but so should my antagonist. And the bank manager and the waiter and the maitre’d. They’re not there just to give my protagonist more dramatic meat to chew. All of them should be acting or reacting like real people would, not in a way that just lets the character continue working through whatever issues or problems they’re dealing with (or not dealing with) at their own pace.
So we need a plot. We need forces outside of our character, things affecting them and driving them to change. Often at a pace or in a way they don’t like.
And this brings us to the flipside, the so-called plot-driven story. Which is kind of silly because, again, pretty much every good story is going to have a plot, and that plot will lead to changes in the story. Like we’ve been saying.
Plot driven stories are all exterior. We don’t really get to know the characters or their inner needs. Everyone tends to respond to things in very basic, shallow ways. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things, cowardly people do cowardly things, and yes, Benedict McTraitorson did stab our hero in the back. We see a lot of stereotypes (or archetypes, if you prefer) in these kind of stories, not fleshed out past a few obligatory descriptions (“No, she’s different because she’s got
red hair and wears hikingboots…”)
I think another big clue for a plot-driven story is that people rarely have any real choices. The ongoing, dynamic plot gives the illusion of choices being made, but really the characters are just sort of getting carried along for the ride. If people are shooting wildly in my direction and I run away… I mean, this isn’t me really choosing to do anything. It’s an automatic reaction for 99.9% of all people. Yeah, sure, we can argue about what constitutes a choice in the same way some people might nitpick about what counts as action, but at the end of the day we want to believe characters are actually having some effect on the world around them.
One other, slightly less common thing… I’ve noticed plot driven stories often (not always, but often) have hyper-capable characters. They have a flawless plan and even if it somehow goes south they’re so well-trained and prepared they’ll figure something out on the fly. Because they never fail and nothing rattles them in any way, they don’t have to make any hard choices (see above) or suffer any sort of repercussions. Which means they never have to grow or change as characters. Again, nothing interior, all exterior.
Is this helpful? Hopefully most of you see why it’s kind of important I have both plot and story in my narrative. And this is the kind of stuff of stuff I want to keep in mind while I’m writing (or maybe outlining) my story. Has this introspective monologue brought things to a halt? Are events making my character grow or change in any way? If we don’t have both of these things going on
Think of it this way. Plot and Story are playing an exhibition game of ping-pong. They’re knocking the ball back and forth and back and forth. How Plot serves is going to shape how Story returns, and that return is going to effect how Plot hits the ball back, and so on, and so forth. If one of them stops doing anything (or just walks away altogether) the game’s going to get boring really fast. Oh, sure, watching Story bounce the ball on his paddle might be interesting for a minute or two, maybe watching them swat it against the far wall like a racquetball. But ultimately we showed up to watch these two play against each other, not, well… play with themselves.
Although here’s another name for that which also fits well here.
Next time, I’d like to talk about how long this takes.
The writing, not the playing with yourself bit.
Oh, also, shamelessly, we’re exactly four weeks out from the release of The Broken Room. If you want to preorder it from your favorite local bookstore I’d greatly appreciate it. Preorders mean you get the book as quickly as possible while also telling the publisher they made a good choice picking up said author’s books. So if you can… well, I’d appreciate it.
And next time, how long this takes.
Until then, go write.