Tag Archive | theme

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.

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How do you Plot?

notquietThere are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.

A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.

Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.

handsThe idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).

How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:

  1. Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
  2. Create an external goal for the main character that is 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. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
  3. Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
  4. Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
  5. 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).
  6. WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
  7. Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
  8. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
  9. Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
  10. Leave room for your characters to surprise you.

Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.

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