Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plain perform on the stage you’ve created for them. In stories, this can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. In novels, though, your conflict moves through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until it all boils over.
At the heart of every story, regardless of its genre, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that narratives be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Still more complications, and a crisis…
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting:
Is what your character wants important? A fine meal, a night’s sleep, a new TV–we’ve all wanted one at one point or another, but is it worthy of a 200-or-more page story? A book should be about something crucial to the character’s happiness or even their continued existence.
Think through your novel on a scene by scene basis: Does each scene advance the plot? Does the conflict come into play within each scene? Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft? When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story? Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution? Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story unfolds? Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins? How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story? What is it that your reader wants to know or experience? Have you managed to dangle this expectation just out of reach… without being unclear as to what’s going on in the story?
Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable? Nobody wants to write (or read) a book whose ending is obvious by the second chapter. At the same time, your characters must be true to themselves. If they do something wildly improbable, readers will not hang in for your big finish. In other words, do your characters’ actions make sense?
Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?
Storytelling is an act of communication–as writers, we are driven to create narratives because we have something to say.
That doesn’t mean every story has to come out swinging, like the fables you may have studied in grade school. Most good works of fiction don’t beat their readers over the head with some heavy-handed moral, or a preachy political message.
The theme of a story can be a subtle observation about human nature, a ‘here’s what it feels like to discover your own mortality,’ or ‘here’s something I’ve noticed about losing a loved one, falling in or out of love’, etc. It can be romantic or deadly serious, a low-key observation or a big insight into life’s greater mysteries. It can address a specific historical event, as does Richard Bowes’s 9/11 ghost story, “There’s a Hole in the City,” or a more generalized experience: war, car accidents, divorce.
Often when we are writing draft, we don’t know what our themes are. It’s entirely common for a writers to not necessarily know what they’re saying within a given story until that draft is written. . . and that’s absolutely fine. Our initial spark for a given book is quite often something very concrete: a character, a setting, or a situation. While that initial inspiration may be tied to whatever deeper things a writer wishes to say, it is normal to find those ideas don’t really surface until the text is actually on the page.
Why worry about theme at all if your subconscious mind is on the job? Because after you’ve got that draft in your hands, it’s worthwhile to figure out what you’re saying, how you’ve said it and whether you’ve made your argument successfully. The reason is this: fiction can be more sophisticated and pleasing when it has a unity that comes from the author’s having paid attention to all of its elements.
When I ask students to identify the theme of a given piece, I like to see a simple sentence. Rather than “Justice” for example, I like to at least see “This story is about Justice” or, preferably, “At times, our justice system is unjust.”
With this in mind, take a moment to see if you can express the themes of a few of your favorite motion pictures, television shows, and books. Don’t be concerned if they seem simple. It is entirely possible to do a complex and nuanced exploration of what seems like a simple proposition, even a cliche. Readers have their own experiences to bring to bear on universal propositions, such as: “Having a sick parent is hard;” “Raising a child is rewarding;” or “Cheaters sometimes do prosper.”
Making the reader ‘get it’
When writing students are asked to consider theme, a risk arises that they will become focused on this element to the exclusion of all else, overcomplicating their ‘message’ and then feeling frustration if their instructor and classmates don’t understand or agree with what they are saying. At times like this, writers may ask: how can I make readers get my theme?
The answer, frustratingly enough, is that they don’t have to. However, your peers, instructors and workshop partners should be at least able to see what you are saying, though–if they can’t, it probably means this element of your story is murky.
Other questions to ask when considering your story’s thematic content:
Do you know what your story is about?
How important is that theme to you?
Does it address that topic?
Are you satisfied with what the story says?
Imagery as it relates to theme:
Moving on, what is imagery and how does it relate to this idea of theme?
You probably remember the basics from English classes you have taken throughout your educational career. Imagery, in literary terms, is language which evokes sensory experience. It includes similes, metaphors, and allusions.
Imagery is what makes your prose poetic; it is what elevates your novel from being a transcript of plot and character action and into another realm of artistic achievement. But to what end? Perhaps, you think, it’s hard enough to tell an interesting story clearly without gumming up the works with a lot of arty language. And it may be that you are a spare prose stylist, with a light hand with such flourishes. Everyone approaches imagery differently: some of us flavor sparse powerful images and plainer prose; other writers layer on the metaphors heavily, even to excess (see purple prose).
All that said, the power of your fiction can increase exponentially if the images you choose resonate somehow with your theme.
Think of your novel as a musical instrument, specifically a piano. Imagine that each of its 88 strings is an element of your novel; a character, a plot development, a pivotal revelation, a theme. As you strike the various notes, music plays–a concert unfolds, carrying the reader along with it.
Now, imagine that the piano is out of tune.
A well-tuned work of fiction is merely one whose elements are in harmony with each other. If your story is about greed, which image is more appropriate to it: apple blossoms floating on a river, or crows fighting over scraps of garbage? If it about reawakening to joy after a long period of sadness, is it better to conclude it with a sunrise or a sunset?
With that in mind, look at the following lists. One is a series of themes, and the second is a random list of images.
First, see which list items feel like they might match.
Next, think about what kinds of stories you expect to see paired with the images, and what kind of images you expect to see in stories with the stated themes.
Finally, consider whether there are images not on the list that you prefer as possible partners for a given theme, or whether there are themes outside this very small roster that might go nicely with the images below.
Make a few notes, do a little thinking… and then have a look at this week’s novel submissions, and see if it sparks any insights.
List one – Themes… a few things a novel might be about
The cost of war
The extent of human obsession
Learning to forgive
The difference between right and fair
The cruelty of kids to one another
Faithfulness in marriage
The difficulty in being in competition with friends.
What is the nature of heroism?
Death of dreams
Failure versus the price of success
Learning to face tragedy
Miracle of new life
The joys of parenthood
List Two – Randomly Chosen Images
Fields of anonymous dead soldiers
Brown leaves and patches of snow
Breaking new eggs
Blowing dirt and tumbleweeds
Indecisive unhappy-looking shoppers
Empty swimming pools
Houses with broken windows
Well-oiled guns in a pristine cabinet.
No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.
It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
In the Woods, Tana French
The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.
Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?
Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?
When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.
Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?
Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).
When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.
If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.
This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.
Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)
Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.
An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:
1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.
Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.
If you’ve been following these essays of mine on craft, there are some basic things about book-writing that you probably know by now:
Novels are about people. This is true even if all your characters are talking bunnies or lovelorn vampires.
99.99% of novels are going to have more than one character.
These individuals will have relationships, which will grow and change over the course of the book.
One of these individuals will stand out. They are the protagonist, or main character (henceforth, MC)
The action of your novel and the behavior of the other people in your story will all move, to some extent, in relation to the journey of your MC.
So far, so good, yes? I hope the above points are blindingly obvious to you all. Here’s a few more:
The long-running trend in fiction in Western fiction is to give MC a significant goal, need or desire: whether it is solving the mystery, battling with cancer, understanding themselves, connecting with an estranged loved one, finding true love, becoming a star, or finishing law school.
Whatever it is, it’s identifiable to readers and deeply important to them.
Whatever that need is, whether they will succeed in fulfilling ought to be in question. “I was looking for a job and then, no problem, I found a job,” isn’t a novel. (“I was looking for a job and then, holy @#$@! you wouldn’t believe what happened…” on the other hand…)
The MC has some good qualities and some bad ones. Not every MC is a saint, or even necessarily nice. However, they have some quality that makes the reader interested enough to stick with them for 500+ pages: they are, to reference a previous essay, funny, smart or nice.
The MC makes an appearance early in the book, in a way that makes it clear that they are the one.
Finally, there’s that dreaded character change thing: traditional Western novel structure tends to go thusly: the MC’s flaws get in the way of achieving their goal, and then when they overcome those flaws (if they do), they either get what they wanted or find they have grown beyond it.
How does a reader know when they’ve met the main character? If you aren’t sure, rewatch a few minutes of a favorite movie this week, one you know well. Keep the media remote in your hand and pause whenever an important character appears for the first time. Ask yourself: if I hadn’t already seen this, would I think they’re the protagonist? How do you know? Notice how they look, what they say, what they do. How are they lit? What’s the camera angle like? The music? At the end of each such scene, take a moment to think about what you learned about this character. What stuck, in other words?
(This is worth doing with all the major characters, even after you’ve met the protagonist.)
Then watch just a little more, briefly considering those characters who were too minor to rate this treatment. In general, they probably weren’t named, and didn’t draw much attention to themselves. If someone isn’t important to the flow of the story, a writer will probably ‘dial down’ their entries and exits from the narrative, to ensure that the reader’s consciousness doesn’t snag on them. We don’t want our audiences focused on Hill the maid when we’re reading about whether Miss Elizabeth Bennett will accept Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal.
Beginning writers sometimes throw their MC into a first scene with nothing but a first name, and perhaps a wisp of physical description. These poor ciphers then move into the plot without ever giving us much sense of themselves as individuals. Establishing who a character is-taking a second to give us some telling detail that makes them unique, memorable and worth knowing-doesn’t have to take thousands of words. It is, however, an entirely worthwhile effort.
How do you do it? Start by noticing what is distinctive about everyone in your lives. Is it a physical trait, an incident in their past, a situation they’re in? (A person with a South Carolina accent isn’t unique in South Carolina . . . but move them to Vancouver, B.C., and they suddenly become exotic.) Are they addicts? Achievers? Disabled? Sociopathic? Colorblind?
What ‘s the first thing you’d say about these individuals if you were talking to a third party? And hey–what would you say it if they weren’t present to defend themselves? What would you say at their eulogy?
Those are the details we desperately want whenever you’re introducing us to an important character, especially if they’re your MC. You aren’t making a film: you can’t cue the audience with music or other non-linguistic cues, but the idea is the same. Take some time. Shine some light on them. Show how they’re special.
But wait! What if the MC of your hyper-realistic novel is totally, completely, utterly, boringly normal?
First, I’d ask: Are they really? I believe everyone is unique, that they have some trait that makes them stand out from the crowd. See how many times you can complete the following sentence, drawing on the real-life people you’ve met:
S/he is completely ordinary, except for _______________________________.
If you’ve got a book on the go, have a look at your MC, paying particular attention to their first entrance into your novel. Have you taken a moment or two to give us a sense of who they are? Do they get the spotlight, or are they passing through the story, all but invisibly? Are they talking heads, devoid of anything but voice?
If so, dress them up. Give them a little love. Get them dirty. Remember, if you are passionate about your characters, readers will be, too.
(Dessert – Katya’s non-profit marketing blog on telling details.)