(First Published on my old blog, 28th October 2013)
By now I wouldn’t blame you if you were thinking, ‘just how long can she go on about York FoW13? It was a month ago!’ And you’d be right in as far as no amount of blog posts can recapture the experience of going yourself. That said, I did learn some quantifiable skills with regard to writing so I’m passing them along. Think of it as a taster in case you decide to go to York FoW yourself one day. (Also I have a quota of posts to fill this month. Don’t worry though – there’ll only be a maximum of two more York rambles.)
Jeremy Sheldon (who taught ‘Lovers and Buddies’) also covered this seminar on plot and character. Strong storytelling, hinges on one or both of these elements. If you ask an agent what they are looking for, they will nearly always reply ‘strong storytelling’, that’s if they’re not replying with ‘voice’ or ‘style’. What they don’t do, is explain what they mean by this. What is a strong story? What is Voice or Style? Aside from a technical description, which is about as much use as someone telling you that a light bulbs blown but then refusing to tell you where the light bulbs are, no one can really say. I think in part this is because they mean different things to different people, but also t seems to be jut one of those things. You can’t put your finger on it to describe it to someone, but everyone knows when it’s not there.
However, all is not lost. If you look at plot and character in enough detail, chance are that you’ll build a strong story anyway. With voice and style. So, plot and character, is there a difference? Yes and no. It depends entirely on your point of view. Personally I think some narratives are more plot driven and some are more character driven. The best narratives, in my book, are both. The only person whose opinion matters there is the writer’s. Having said that, while you may prefer plot over character, or vice versa, in order to build a strong story you cannot consider them entirely disconnected. A character without a plot is just collection of vices, virtues and mannerisms, all dressed up with no where to go. A plot without a character, is a fantastic stage set without actors.
“Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of the action not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” Aristotle.
Basically, Aristotle argues that in Tragedy, plot is more important than character. (He later goes on to say that in Comedy, character is more important than plot.) Actually I’m not sure I entirely agree. While it is important to ellicit an emotional response in your reader, surely one of the best ways of doing this is building a bridge of sympathies between your characters and your reader? Yes plot is important in tragedy – the events in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus have to follow the set sequence or the gradual upping of the stakes and dawning horror of the situation, just won’t happen. I’d be inclined to say that it was just as important rather than more important though. But then Aristotle would have said I am emotionally un-house broken due to my hair colour so…
Anyway, within a plot you have the writers perspective and the readers perspective. They should ultimately dovetail and that’s what you need to bear in mind when plotting;
Story = Crucible of invented human activity – affected by time and causality – resulting in The Final Outcome.
Story = investment of time – leading to Reader Expectation – resulting in, Reader Investment Confirmed.
(sense of place, dialogue
In other words you can’t suddenly throw in bits and pieces and bend your plot to suit yourself without going back and sowing the seeds of suspicion. Think Chekov’s Gun. If you are going to use the gun in the third act, then it should be visible on the wall in act one. Not I said visible not necessarily blindingly obvious. Readers like to have their suspicions confirmed; it makes the book feel like a friend. Readers do not like being cheated or misled through laziness – do that enough times and the reader will put the book down. Remember you are the tour guide of your created world, it is your job to make the reader feel that you know what you are doing and will take care of them, otherwise they won’t feel like they are in a safe pair of hands.
Story should not contain any filler. So anything that does not build your plot or your characters has to go. We all know what it’s like with a first draft; there are place holders, half names, undecided bits. That’s fine. The finished product needs to have been on the mother of all Rocky style training montages so that it’s a lean beast, not a flabby, soft read.
Basic Structure (which you can adapt at your leisure.)
-Set Up (scene setting/ world building/ character introduction)
-1st turn – hamartia or fatal flaw. This is where the story stops telling what it’s about and starts being what it’s about.
– Development, Character tries to achieve goal, but is thwarted, often repeatedly.
– Mid point – Character starts to break through/ make progress, but isn’t there yet.
– Crescendo – protagonist is making greater step toward goal. Antagonist counters more strongly.
– Crisis – everything appears to be going wrong / unsavable
– Recognition and reversal – the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it.
– Climax – protagonist triumphs (or not, depends if last point occurs in time!)
In a tragedy the protagonist is unable to recognise their hamartia or reverse damage, at least not in time. Eg King Lear, Macbeth, Chasing Amy, Red State
In a comedy the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it in time for a happy ending. Eg Much ado about nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones
Character and Flow
– the flaw should appear unconsciously (to the protagonist) in the set up
– mid point plot break through is the first moment of real character insight. Significant step towards goal.
– Crisis – the self realisation and plot all go pear shaped. Character has not yet reversed his flaw.
– Character has to engage with changing on a positive level, turning the flaw into an asset.
With regard to hamartia or fatal flaw, it may be conscious or unconscious (usually the former is better.) It is a deep character weakness. It is also often the same as a character’s greatest strength. How self aware the character is and what use he puts that quality towards is what defines it as a flaw. For example the film As Good As it Gets – the MC has massive OCD issues coupled with social ineptitude. On the other hand he notices things, everything that other people take for granted. By the end of the film he’s learned to use the positive aspects of his OCD, namely noticing and anticipating, and controlling the negative aspects, the desire to control everything and push people away.
Or to use a personal exmple, in WIP my MC is incredibly resilient. She endures and doesn’t allow things to flatten her. She keeps going. The fatal flaw is that she doesn’t trust anyone to help her, she is to independant. She pushes people away and becomes isolated during a very dangerous sequence of event. Does she recognise and reverse this? Well if I ever get any where you’ll have to read it for yourself and find out 😉
Thanks for reading!