P is for Plot

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Bringing our essay collection back to the craft of writing, we’re here today to talk about your plot. Like pretty much every other aspect of writing (love interests, semicolons, accents in dialogue), you can find a huge number of writing books that cover the development of plot: when do you plot things out, and how completely? What are the distinct stages of your plot? Does every book need the same basic plot arc? And the disappointing fact is, everyone has their own spin on the idea…except for one specific point.

So tonight we’re not going to zero in on basic plot structure or on the divide between plotters and pantsers (those would be people who fly by the seat of their pants, not so much plotting as going from one point to another). We won’t talk about subplots or scene-blocking or story-boarding. What we’re going to talk about is the interplay between protagonist and plot:

Whether you develop character or plot first, the internal character arc and the external plot arc must line up. Which is to say, both the protagonist and the plot will reach a breaking point, and while external events may play a part, not only should these breaking points happen at the same time, the external events should be ones that relate innately to the protagonist’s inner struggle.

There are different approaches to come at this synergy: Don Maass suggests making sure the character is playing out a larger social conflict, and simply making sure that the character’s crisis point and the plot crisis point happen at the same time. Larry Brooks insists that not only must plot be precisely executed (there are percentages, y’all), the protagonist must be both the Chosen One to fix this issue, and also the Very Last Person you’d want to trust with it, because of their internal issues. Lisa Cron, on the other-other hand, believes that the character’s inner issue supersedes all else, and that the plot serves only to back the character into a corner where they must either face their issues or give up (she offers It’s a Wonderful Life as an example, for the reason that in the end, no one learns what happened to the money, but no one really cares, either – it was only a catalyst to make George face his inner issues).

However you come at it, it’s an interesting way to look at things – especially in genre fiction, where there is great emphasis on a well-executed plot. Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular have a heavy emphasis on “what if…?” and there can be a certain distaste in rigging the game, so to speak: “well, certainly the plot and character arcs could line up precisely, but really I’m trying to show the world as it is, and so tailoring my character to my plot is much too convenient.” Believe me, I get it. It’s difficult for me, too. The “what if…?” is a pure, noble concept, driving us away from moralizing and towards pure, clear prose. That’s the good side of it!

Here’s another way to look at it, though: you’re always going to end up choosing aspects of your protagonist’s character. For some reason, you chose this particular person to make your protagonist, and no one else. Sure, maybe someone else could have carried the ring to Mordor, but Frodo had all the right qualities: a yearning for adventure, resilience to the ring’s powers, and a pure heart that led him both into and out of danger by turns. Aragorn would have been the wrong person. Saruman would have been worse still. And yet no one would look at The Lord of the Rings and say, “eh, it’s just too convenient that the ring ended up with Frodo.” That’s a “what if…?” paired with a basic fact of storytelling: a certain amount of coincidence is necessary to power the story. If Saruman had gotten it, the story would have ended quickly in death and destruction, and if no one at all had ever found the ring, things would have continued on without a tipping point. No one wants to read either of those stories.

Tailoring your character arc and plot arc to one another is no more artificial than skipping the scenes where your character has breakfast. It feels different because a character is a person, and we’re socially conditioned not to mess with who people are, but this is different. Your character is not distinct from your story, and indeed the particulars of the character drive the fact that there is a story at all. So ask yourself, “Why is my protagonist both the best and worst person to solve the main problem of the story?”

Last piece of advice: as with all parts of writing, you may not have immediate success. In fact, it’s likely that you won’t. So as you thrash around wailing, “why, why don’t I know the answer to this?” remember that your struggle is normal. Let it percolate, go take a walk, maybe read a chapter or two of your latest book. Return to it and turn it over in your head for a few days. There’s no need to rush this! Think, ponder, tailor. You’ve got this.

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