Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Character-Based View of Plot

(I am, for silly personal reasons that shall be revealed eventually, going to be posting quite a bit this week. Consider yourself forewarned.)

Last fall, when I was working on my talk about plot for the Illinois SCBWI conference, I found myself thinking a lot about Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful "Plot vs. Character Cagematch" talk at Kindling Words last year -- particularly her emphasis on the fact that good plotting grows out of the complications inherent in good characters, and the choices and situations those characters are driven to make. This is something I believe strongly too, but it wasn't something emphasized so much in all of the talks I'd given on plot up to that point. So working off Laurie's ideas, I came up with a character-driven view of plot construction, in which a a good book develops its story in five simple steps:

1. The book establishes a complex character—someone with:

  • A flaw of which he or she may not be aware
  • Something to gain or lose
  • Or both.
2. The world of the book* presents that character with a situation:
  • One that will evoke the flaw—again, possibly unbeknownst to the character
  • Or in which the thing that can be gained or lost will be gained or lost
  • Or both.**
3. And then it forces that character to make a choice or take some sort of action
  • John Gardner: "Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another."***
4. In the new situation engendered by the results of #3, the plot repeats steps 2 and 3, until

5. The flaw in the character is faced and dealt with**** or
  • The thing to be lost or won is lost or won
  • Or both.
* This could be other characters' decisions or actions -- like, say, Mr. Bingley moving to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice, and bringing Darcy with him; or the actual world of the book -- like the announcement of the Hunger Games in The Hunger Games.

** Steps #1 and #2 can happen simultaneously (and sometimes should) -- think of the opening of The Lightning Thief, in which we learn all about Percy as he "accidentally vaporizes his Pre-Algebra teacher," as the chapter title says. Or the first book in The 39 Clues series, where Dan and Amy Cahill light two million dollars on fire in the first sentence -- that tells you plenty about them just as it kicks off their adventures.

*** This is one of my two favorite writing quotes ever, tied with David Mamet's "All art is where you put the camera."

**** "Dealt with" does not necessarily mean "corrected" -- the character can and probably will make mistakes involving that flaw again, after the book ends. But it does mean, I think, "recognized and acknowledged," so that the flaw no longer wreaks its havoc unconsciously -- there has been growth.

I like this formulation because it puts the emphasis upon the protagonist's choices and actions, and books in which a character does a lot and chooses a lot are, I think, generally more compelling and interesting than books in which things just happen to the character -- or worse yet, in which things happen to other people while the protagonist observes. Also, I have met writers who claim to be scared of plot, but I've never met one who claimed to be scared of characters, so I hope it might be more comfortable to think about. And I think this view of plot could ultimately work well paired with the plot structures I've talked about before (particularly Freytag's triangle), so that the choices and actions get consistently bigger and bigger, ultimately building to point #5 above. Maybe this view of plot would be especially useful to writers feeling their way through the first draft, and then the other plot structure could be useful in the revision stage, as people check the sturdiness of the structure they've created.


  1. Really interesting and helpful, not just for the first draft. In revising the umpteenth draft, I still always need to be thinking about character motivations and whether, in fact, one damn thing is simply happening after another.

    Your description works nicely for MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, my current reading. I'm afraid to turn the page to find out whether Marcelo is going to try to please Wendell (and thus betray his coworker). It's Marcelo's actions, driven by his character flaws, that are making me nervous.

  2. Thanks for the post, this is a really helpful thing to remember.
    Also, Sara and I had fun talking to you at Kidslit Night!

  3. I LOVE that quote from John Gardner. Can you tell me where he said it?