One of the first things that writers generally learn is that (most) stories convey change. I say most in parentheses because some writers think they can get away with writing where nothing happens. I, personally, do not find those stories interesting enough to read. Change can loosely be connected to cause and effect to drive the story. Sometimes it is obvious: the world ends. Sometimes it is only the mind of the character or the circumstances that have changed, but something has changed.
When we talk about something happening we talk about cause and effect. Something didn’t just happen, it happened because something else happened previously. Event 1 happens and Event 2 happens because Event 1 happened. Simple, right? This makes a platform for how the story progresses. Otherwise known as plot. Cause –> Effect.
Obviously it can be this simple, or it can be so much more complex depending on the story. That is the beauty of creation.
What changes in your story? Write on.
The literary world is full of them. Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Captain Ahab, Anita Blake, Robert Langdon, Stephanie Plum, Miles Vorkosigan, the list goes on and on. What is it that makes them great? Any number of things depending on who you ask. In my opinion, it is that we can define what it is about those characters that help us define the greatness. In the writing world I call it clear characterization. In the reading world I call it empathy.
Clarity in characterization for me means that I understand the character’s goal, why it’s important and what conflicts come up in the attainment of that goal. Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Simple. Deb Dixon wrote a whole book on this that clarified why these elements must be present to help the reader empathize with a character.
When I was just a reader, devouring books at every opportunity was mostly what I was interested in. So many times, I’d wander into the stacks of the library, pick a book at random and start reading. The librarians all knew me. I’d be sitting on the floor just about anytime I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere else, and often times when I was, reading. They weren’t all classics. They weren’t all fiction. I can get lost in a non-fiction book just as easily if I can understand the subject. (I read a 400 page biography last Wednesday for an example. Yes, all of it start to finish.) I could fall in love with a character or hate them based on what was written on the page.
When I tried to write my first story I didn’t know anything about writing, I just wanted to write about characters that did things. The things they tried, did, experienced, failed, worried about or just plain didn’t do should make you feel. Anger, sadness, fear, happiness, hope, joy. It doesn’t matter what the emotion was, just that it was felt. That, in my opinion, is what makes great characters. Little did I know I was starting my journey in writing emulating Characterization and Plot.
Are your characters great? Write on.
Sometimes there is someone you know who you just cannot believe is that shallow. Does this person think about anything? Stop talking about nothing long enough to grow? Have any redeeming quality whatsoever? Now the biggie: is this your character?
Sometimes in the rush to get the words down on the page you might not have a clear idea of who this character is. Do you flesh out the details as you go or just move your paper person around in your world? This is where I run into problems, usually in my prewriting. Why do I prewrite? Because this is where I get to know my characters, my plot, the arcs, the details, all the juicy stuff that I think needs to be in the story. This creation part is where I get to have fun. I torture my characters. I make bad things happen. Then I’m mean and make them cope with it, react to it, or just plain try and run away. But I also have to flesh out that character more for both myself and the reader so that the character, (and incidentally their actions,) is believable. How frustrated have you become when you come across a character in a story that does something so completely out of character you put the book down? Come on, we’ve all done it. In this case the paper person may have been fully formed in the author’s mind, but it didn’t translate to the story. Or maybe, (the horror,) the author didn’t know the character and blithely wrote the scene without a blip.
Invest in your characters. Paper people are fine (sort of) for discovering things, generic secondary characters or just walk-ons. And when you run into them in real life make up a story about them or invent a reason for why he/she is that shallow. It’s a great writing exercise. Write on.
I am working on my plot this week. I never really thought about what plot is until I started struggling with my own version. I have the major ideas that are not character or setting based, but when it came down to the sequence of events that happened either to force the characters to react or not I got stuck. When I get stuck, I have the habit of reading writing blogs, books, websites, magazines or whatever I can get my greedy hands on to work through it in my subconscious. (Yes, I know I’m a writing geek.) I came across this sentence in Patricia C. Wrede’s Fabulous (my word not hers) Blog that really got me thinking (to the point that I wrote this without finishing the rest of her blog on Plot until afterwards.) She wrote:
A plot, by my definition, is a sequence of events, nearly always tied together by causality, that involve characters and take place in a setting. I prefer the sort that have a problem to solve and some sort of resolution or closure at the end.
What it got me thinking about was that I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been talking to other writers and they think they are talking about plot but in reality they are talking about character issues or setting issues. Not that it’s right or wrong. If that is what they are focusing on, great, it’s their book not mine. I like plot. I love how I can make something happen that the characters now have to deal with. Remember the pool with the shark? If the shark is hungry or the character is bleeding it is no longer sink or swim . . . it is live or die. So plot can do a lot with a story. Turn it in a direction you’re not expecting. Or the plot point hit and the character is now doing something you didn’t expect. I love those moments of discovery in my writing. The hope that I keep experiencing these things and enjoying them keeps me sitting down to see what the characters do next.
Back to the plodding . . . I mean plotting. Is my sequence of events moving too slowly? I am beginning to think that instead of plotting I’m plodding. I might have added too much detail of what is going on (for my taste) in how a book is paced. I know there are a lot of writers who can focus on the small details and really make it come to life for a lot of readers. Robert Parker comes to mind with the descriptions of cooking or food in his Spenser novels. Science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Poul Anderson come to mind where they go into great detail of the science of how things work. My dirty secret: I skip these parts. I’m a character person, a plot person, a setting person . . . a story person. I could care less how the dish was made, what ingredients went into it, or how it tasted to the characters. I don’t want to know how the faster-than-light-engine works, or the super-duper-insta-trasporter broke and how we’re going to fix it unless it is a key part of the plot. I know people who love that kind of story because that kind of detail makes it real for them. But that is not my thing.
I think I’ll try and adjust the zoom lens on my internal camera and see if putting the plot into less granular detail helps me move ahead with this story. Just gotta remember where the key points are and keep going. Maybe then I’ll stop plodding and start plotting again.
Author’s note: Apologies for the week hiatus. My sister was getting married and I didn’t account for how much I would get sucked in to doing things around and for the wedding. Therefore I got NO writing done.