Tag Archive | Plot

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.

It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.



Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my

My synopsis workshop finished up this past April for RWA’s Outreach International Chapter, and I’ve also been judging in some contests–boy do folks need to figure out their story arc and plot lines (and character arcs, too). This is one place where a synopsis can help you because it highlights every flaw in your story–all the weaknesses come out. Which is why I think editors really ask for these things.

So what are the THREE big flaws that I’m seeing (on a regular basis)?

1) The big one is that there is no plot line or story arc. In other words, the story rambles along and stuff happens.

This usually can be traced back to the main character (your protagonist) not having a strong, clear goal that’s well motivated and which kicks off the main plot line, or the main character’s arc in a more character-driven story. This goal can be as simple as survive a night in a haunted house in order to win a million dollars (motivated by the need for that money to save mom, who is about to lose the family farm), or it can be to win a contest to win her own self respect, or it can be as big as saving the universe. But there’s a couple of important things about this:

A) The main character’s goal must matter to that character–there has to be something personal at stake.

B) There have to be consequences for failure–ones that would shatter than character.

Once these are in place, the character has been set on a path. Now you’ve started a story arc. The stuff that happens now tries to push the character off that path (this is your plot). Worse and worse stuff happens until the character gets faced with a crisis–and this crisis had better be one that pits the character against wants and needs, so that the character has to make very tough choices. This is where the character gets stripped down to their core–to what makes that person tick. (And if you don’t know this, you need to get to know your characters better.)

Now stuff does happen still but it’s all related to the character’s struggles to get what that person wants. And you make it worse for the character by layering  in what a character needs. As in if you’ve stuffed your character into a haunted house for a night, what your character may need is sanity and a sane world, and that haunted house may strip both away from her. Now your character has internal conflict–stay for the money (external want) or leave to be safe (internal need). And now you can add in an antagonist with a conflicting goal.

This is going to complicate the pl0t–and give you more conflict.

Now your antagonist needs to be thought out–as in what does she want and need?

For example, what’s your ghost’s goal in driving everyone out? This is where you do not want to cop out and go for the cliche. In other words, don’t just go for “She’s insane” or “She’s angry because she was jilted.” Those are weak motivations.

Orson Scott Card in his book on Characters & Viewpoint notes that when you’re digging for your character’s motivations, the first three or four things that pop into mind will always be cliches. (If you don’t have this book, go buy it now, then come back to read the rest of this.) These great ideas are cliche because they are cliche–they’ve been used to death. Keep digging for better motivations. This is vital for any antagonist–write this person as if this character is the hero (we’re all heroes in our own stories).

Could be the ghost is trying to protect others from the damnation that caught her–except she’s driving them mad in the process. Or maybe the ghost has a secret she’s trying to hide. Or maybe the ghost is trying to find a body she can inhabit so she can live again. (And see how those cliches creep in as you’re batting ideas around–that’s why you keep writing down ideas.)

Find out what your bad guy wants as a goal. Find out what your bad guy needs, too. We all need love, right? Well, we all need our own internal rationalization systems, too. Even someone who is mad will have their own reasons for doing what they do.

2) The other biggie I see is that in what’s supposed to be a romance, but the romance is put in like an afterthought. The action overshadows the romance, so the story doesn’t seem as if it’s really about two people struggling to build a relationship. This one is tough.

In a romance, the romance is the main plot line. It’s the main story arc. So you have to have thought about both your hero and your heroine. What does each person want from a relationship? What does each one need? This can be different from the action plot line. It could be your heroine needs to save the world from a plague of vampires–that’s the action sub-plot in a paranormal romance. The plot needs to put her in conflict with a hero (and possible love interest). It makes sense that in this case the hero is the head of the vampires–that’ll give you great conflict in both the romantic plot and the action plot. But now you have to figure out what does each person need and want on a personal level–and how are these going to conflict?

Does the heroine need a steady guy? (And what’s her reason for that–did she grow up in an unstable home?) If she needs stable, you want to either pair her up with Mr. Seems-Like-A-Bad-Risk, or with Mr. Stable-But-Boring. And then you add in what she wants. Could be your vampire fighting heroine needs a partner to watch her back–and she gets Mr. Unstable. Or could be she needs a vampire to come over to her side–so she’s got to seduce one into helping her. The trick here is to keep looking for what adds more conflict and more complexity. Pair up the compulsive clean freak with the slob (The Odd Couple is really a great romance disguised by the fact that it has two guys). Layer in reasons for your romantic pair to be attracted to each other–and layer in plenty of personality issues to drive them apart. Make the relationship the focus of the plot.

Then go back to your action sub-plot. Just remember if the main plot line or story arc is all about action, then you’ve got something other than a romance on your hands. In a romance, the relationship is at the center of the story.

3) The third big thing is that every character’s motivations needs to be clear–that means this info must make it onto the page. This is one where I often feel, as I’m reading, as if the writer knows this stuff, but it hasn’t gotten to the page.

There is the story in your head. There is the story on the page. There is the story in the reader’s head. Ideally, all these match. If one is off, the story flops. This is where you want to ask–“Did I put in WHY my character acts this way or feels this way?” In a synopsis, you simply tell the reader–“He hates cats because he was once locked in a closet with ten of them.” You want to make sure the reader understands WHY your character acts as she does.

The other part of this is make sure your reader understands the setup for the story–how the plot line or story arc kicks off. Get a friend you trust to tell the truth to read this, too, and make sure you are not fudging things. It’s too easy to think, “This is good enough.” You need outside eyes here and someone who’ll say, “This doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t believe this.” That is something to fix with stronger motivations. (You can have a character act out of character or do amazing things only if this is sufficiently motivated–if you have cake-making mom suddenly pull out a sword and behead someone there’s got to be something in her background that would explain why she can do this, or she’s doing this because her child is threatened and she’s got adrenaline making her into super-mom.)

Too often I’m reading something and all I think is “why”. Why did that happen? Why does she feel that way. The worst is when a synopsis just says: And they fall in love. Well…why? What’s different about this relationship and love story? What’s motivating the emotion. Again, this is where a friend who will write “why” all over your synopsis can help. Answer every why–or leave the reason for the question coming up out of the synopsis.

There’s other stuff you can do, but if you cover the big three, you’ll have a much stronger book (and a stronger synopsis).