Sunday Writing Discussion #14: Plotting Part Two

I am working on the chronology and the plot outline for a fantasy novel at the moment. For the last few weeks I have been thinking about issues about plot and what types of elements and structure need to be present to create a good plot.

I want to start this week’s discussion with making the distinction that the chronology of action in a piece of fiction is not necessarily the same as a plot outline. Sometimes the chronology of events that sparks the story starts long before the story itself starts. Sometimes the events of the story are not told chronologically. Often before writing a plot outline it is useful to write out the sequence of events in the chronological order that they happen because this can help with making sure everything fits logically.

As an example in the movie D.O.A. the point of view character comes into the police station and reports a murder. The police asks who has been murdered and the point of view character says that he has. The story then comes out that he has been poisoned, he didn’t know at first and went to the hospital. At the hospital he was diagnosed and told he had three days to live. This gave him three days to find who poisoned him and why. The story is not told chronologically. The riddle of the plot is filled with more tension because it starts with the surprise at the beginning of the protagonist reporting his own murder.

Sometimes in fiction there are actions that happen far prior to the immediate story that are part of the background to the story. As an example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually starts much sooner than Romeo out carousing with his clansmen, seeing Juliet, and falling in love. It starts with whichever of his and her ancestors originated the feud that is the backdrop to the story. This original fight doesn’t have to be included in the fictional work but knowledge of it informs the piece. It helps to set ecology and the “moral” system of the story. It gives the play an orienting starting point.

Every culture has its own moral system that often is very subtle and people who are living in the culture take it for granted. As writers we have to be very conscious not only of the cultural moral system that we live in, but also the one that we create in a work of fiction. Fiction is one of the ways that morality– what is seen as appropriate or inappropriate behavior– is conveyed. The Iliad is not just about the Trojan War. It is not a chronological presentation of the history of events of that time period. It is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. It explores this through the juxtaposition of Achilles and Hector. It uses the actions of Achilles to demonstrate his character and point up the fault of pride.

Creating a moral system in a piece of fiction does not mean standing on a soap box and getting preachy. If a writer wants to do that, I would say to them go write a persuasive essay. Fiction is meant to entertain. Encountering someone standing on a soap box and preaching for most folks is a real turn off.

Creating a moral system further does not mean that the writer has to reflect the main cultural point of view that they come from. The creation of a moral system is a way to frame what the author wants to talk about and explore. For example, a writer could create a story of success where the main character is a good Joe. The character works hard and illustrates through his actions that he is honest, hard-working, and perseveres. Maybe the tension in the story comes from another worker who is his competition/opposition who is also trying to get the promotion. The moral system of this story is that hard-work pays off and if a person perseveres and goes that extra mile, he will be rewarded.

Not all fiction has to come from this rather mainstream moral system. As an example look at The Godfather. The chronology of The Godfather goes farther back than the story. The moral system starts in Sicily with the strong sense of family. Family is all-important. Even if the family is involved in crime that doesn’t matter. What matters is the bonds between the family members.

The moral system of a piece of fiction could be anything the author wants to create. It could be the exact reverse of “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” It could be “crime pays.” Perhaps it is about a group of criminals who shun regular society and are very successful at stealing and live well. The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven spring to mind.

So if the writer has a chronology and they have identified the moral system that will frame their story, the next part of plotting to figure out is how to highlight and play with that moral system. The movements of the story and the actions of the characters must illustrate this moral system. Again it cannot be a bit of grandstanding. No soap boxes. The ending will however be where the writer tips their hand and tells which side of the moral system they fall on and the moral system will ultimately be revealed.

But this has to come from the murky, grey area. Remember stories come from conflict and tension. So… next discussion: Stories From The Grey Area

Sunday Writing Discussion #4: Which Comes First Character or Plot?

Lately I have been watching on YouTube some of the video segments that were recorded by Martha Alderson, who has been called “the Plot Whisperer.” Her blog where you can find links to this series of YouTube videos is:

In the first of her videos titled “Dramatic Action Plot,” she focuses her discussion on determining a character that the writer wants to write about. The second video in the series furthers this discussion and talks about character flaws. I found this interesting because she is known for discussing plot rather than character development and yet she was advocating starting with a character and developing the plot from there. She talks about that the writer needs to know this character and their goals. In addition the goals cannot simply be goals, but need to be driving passions. So if the character is a mystery detective, it must be that character’s driving ambition to solve the case.

In Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for creating fiction his first step is to write out a one sentence description of the story or novel. This sentence is then expanded into a summary paragraph for the second step. Creating characters is a third step. In many ways he starts with plot and then populates the story.

So which approach is better?

I think both methods have merit. Without good characters a story will fall flat. Plots that are unsatisfying or do not contain all the Aristotlian elements of a story are unsatisfying. In my opinion it depends on the story that an author wants to tell. If the story is to be primarily character driven and have as one of its features a primarily internal plot, then I think that starting with developing a character or characters makes the most sense. If the story is to be primarily plot driven, determining what the plot will be and then creating characters that will best carry out that plot is the way to go.

I have two characters who I began thinking about and working on quite awhile ago. I can close my eyes and envision each of them. I can imagine how they speak and how they would respond to certain events. I am very intrigued by these characters. I think they are compelling and I want to do them justice and put them in captivating novels. The plots for both of these characters out of necessity for who they are as characters– their conflicts, fears, goals, backgrounds, and concerns– need to be action driven, external plots. I am finding it incredibly difficult to write their stories in part because I started with the characters and the stories for them will be not internal plot driven stories. Perhaps as I gain more skill I will be able to create the stories for these characters. The more that I write and think about things, the more I learn.

Another danger in creating the characters first is that the author could create what are called Mary Sues. Mary Sues are so idealized that they never approach feeling authentic and it feels a little like the author is fantasizing through them. Writing stories is not about making idealized versions of oneself who can never be defeated and always come out smiling. On the contrary on some levels it a little sadistic in that the writer has to really put the characters through a certain amount of hell. A story needs conflict and if the writer likes their characters too much, they will shy off of putting the screws to the characters. If the characters are idealized versions of the author, why would any author inflict torment on themselves even in their fantasies?

Starting with the plot also has pitfalls as well. A writer can write out a pretty logical plot with external action scenes that seem to flow consistently. And then they create the characters for the plot and even if they create those characters specifically for that plot, the internal logic of the characters interacting with the pre-planned external plot may require more thinking and changes. Also if the story is too externally driven it may feel like it does not have either an empathetic main character or an emotional center to the story. I think a great deal of science fiction and action thrillers start with plot and are subsequently populated with characters and sometimes the characters are less than authentic.

Again, I think both methods of developing stories have merits and choosing which will fit the writer’s current project makes the most sense. Ultimately in the writing of the story or the novel there will be an interplay between character and plot development and the writer will have to move back and forth and revise things as they go. Both characters and plots are important to make stories work.