Category Archives: Plot lines

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one – Plot and Character

(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;

The Writer;

Story = Crucible of invented human activity – affected by time and causality – resulting in The Final Outcome.

The Reader;

Story = investment of time   –      leading to Reader Expectation – resulting in, Reader Investment Confirmed.
(sense of place, dialogue
writing etc)

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!

Throwback Thursday:Tales of York, Volume One – Lovers, Buddies and the Tragedy Paper.

(First published on my old blog, 7th October 2013)

The first seminar I attended at York FoW13, was ‘Lovers and Buddies; 7 steps to friendship and romance’, by Jeremy Sheldon. I’d never been to a writing seminar of any kind before. In fact any seminars I usually attend have horrifying medical slide shows attached, so this was not only new and interesting but quite restful as well. The added benefit is that I learned a lot.

I won’t give you a direct transcription of my notes. That would be extremely dull. However I will attempt to sift through them for the bits that struck me most and compare and contrast it with a similar set of guidelines which I used in A-level English, in a critical essay on Shakespeare. Ok, that already sounds dry. I promise this won’t be. The best thing about this seminar, was it’s versatility. As soon as you’ve clocked the main points, you can apply them to any story shape in any medium you like and it still works.

So what do romantic relationships, friendships and tragedies have to do with one another? Surely they are three different scenarios? Well no not really. They follow a very similar pattern of occurrences in roughly the same time frame. It’s really the actions of the characters and the outcomes that make the difference.

The seven steps;

1) The meet-cute (in movie terms). Quite literally the point where the two characters in that relationship dynamic meet. Think Romeo and Juliet dancing at that party or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy NOT dancing at the ball at Mereton. Or if you want to think friendship how about Murtagh jumping Riggs in the police station before he knew that was his new partner (classic buddy cop) or Luke Skywalker meeting Han Solo in the Mos Eisley bar. (Yes I know they weren’t alone. And yes, Han shot first *sigh*) It doesn’t have to be main characters meeting up either. If a friendship or romance is a sub plot then you would have those character meeting up for the first time. Or at least at a significant time when the relationship is about to change.
Tragedy wise it’s much the same – Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader for the first time and fighting him unaware that he is fighting his father. The only family he has left and they’re mortal enemies (ok there’s Leia but they don’t know they’re related yet…) Or Irish folktale CuChullain fighting and killing Conlai only to find out he’s killed his son. (Admittedly in that case, the entire story would be the fight but I’ll get back to that.)

2) Dislike/ Attraction – there is a strong feeling between the two characters. Aside from Romeo and Juliet, all the examples I’ve listed above started out disliking each other. That’s possibly because I find that dynamic of overcoming pre-conceptions and learning to like someone or even fall in love with them, endlessly fascinating. Either way, they can’t be indifferent to each other, or they won’t progress to step three.

3) Complications – the reasons that a pair of characters can’t be together or can’t be friends (or in tragedy sense, can’t overcome their burgeoning mutual enmity.) Darcy is far too proud to consider Elizabeth and therefore doesn’t see her clearly. Elizabeth is thoroughly put off Darcy firstly by his bad behavior and later by the tales Mr Wickham spins her. They can’t be together because they create barriers. In addition there are also barriers of class, money and social convention to overcome. Those sort of barriers are only beaten by a pair of characters if they are pulling together, which Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t. On top of this, they are continually thrown into each others company. If they hadn’t been, it’s possible that one unpleasant encounter at a dance at Mereton might have been the whole story.

4) Increased purpose for being – whether they initially were attracted or disliked each other, the presence of the other, causes an increased will for life in a character. The very thing that attracts Darcy is the way Elizabeth laughs him off, managing to deliver some impertinent remarks in such a way that they don’t give offence but make him stop and think. From a tragical POV, take Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. They are on a collision course from day one. Both are directly in the way of what the other wants and both want the other out of the way. There is an increased sense of purpose in both characters. Neither can rest until the other is dead. It’s not given to everyone to have one great enemy, anymore than it is to have one great love. In both cases it brings out the best and worst in a character. (I’ll admit that Harry Potter isn’t exactly a tragedy but I’m trying to choose random tragical elements.)

5) Alignment – the characters fall in to line with the discovery that they want the same thing. However, how they achieve this is still up for debate; they are not aligned in their opinions. In simplest terms Darcy discovers that he wishes to marry for love, a belief that Elizabeth has held already. They are not agreed on who is to marry whom! Harry and Voldemort are in one accord that one of them must die, neither of them agree which of them it should be – unsurprisingly. In a friendship perspective, Murtagh and Riggs are working together to solve the case, but neither agree on the others methods. It’s about prolonging conflict. Sometimes a big conflict, sometimes something small that can blow up completely, making the whole relationship look un-salvageable.

6) Crisis – This would be the point where that difference of opinion causes a moment where everything looks like it’s going wrong and can’t be saved. This is the darkest moment, the lowest point on the character journey. For example Jane Eyre discovers on her wedding day that Mr Rochester the groom, has a wife still living, shut up in the attic. In despair she runs away and nearly dies of exposure (which still seems a bit daft to me but I’m willing to forgive much as I love the book and I admire anyone who really sticks to their principles.) At that point there is no way for them to be together. This is usually where there is a huge argument in the friend plot line – all the things that annoy them about each other come out in the most hurtful way possible. In the tragedy sense the climax is the worst becoming worse. Think Romeo killing Tibault, after Tibault kills Mercutio under Romeo’s arm. Then think the message to Romeo getting delayed by a plague blockade but word of Juliet’s death reaching him, followed by Romeo drinking poison moments before Juliet wakes up.

7) Resolution and Surrender – this is the ‘I’ve got you’ moment. Reconciliation between lovers. They acknowledged their flaws and learnt from them. Elizabeth realises that she should have given Darcy more of a chance and not formed her opinion based on a second hand report. Darcy having had time to think over Elizabeth’s telling off, realises that he’s not behaved well and sets out to do better, proving to her that he’s worth a second chance. Harry faces death and comes through, wiser and now unafraid. Voldemort still fears death so much that he cannot comprehend anything but defying it. Harry, having recognised his flaws and reversed them triumphs, whereas Voldemort destroys himself. Or for tragical purposes, Juliet recognises that everything has gone wrong and comes to the same conclusion as Romeo; that she doesn’t want to live on without him. The characters are aligned still even if they don’t have a happy ending. Murtagh has gained a new appreciation for his seemingly dull life from his friendship with Riggs. Riggs has someone to care about and who cares about him and now wants to live, he’s overcome his death wish.

So those are the seven steps. You can look at almost any film or book and identify them quite easily. There are exceptions in the sense of a defeat being joyful. The English Patient for example. In the romance sense, love becomes a choice rather than a need or obligation. Two characters enter into it willing to be emotionally vulnerable with each other. They shed the emotional armor they’re carrying. Love in itself is a kind of surrender.

So, other things to look out for;

Hubris or fatal flaw – the one thing in a character’s make up that prevents them from achieving their goal.

Magnitude – at some point a decision will be made, the consequences of which overshadow the rest of the story. The story becomes about dealing with those consequences.

Recognition and reversal – a character must recognise and reverse or mitigate his fatal flaw in order to achieve his goal. Or if it’s a tragedy must not recognise it, or recognise it too late. Think King Lear, realising and admitting that he was wrong about youngest daughter, Cordelia, just before they are all executed.

These are the ingredients of all really good, enduring character relationship plot lines. I had come across some of them before but it was an eye opener to take them and apply them to more modern film and literature. I haven’t incorporated the entire seminar but I think this is enough of the gist. It’s definitely helped make my decisions regarding character reactions much more conscious and deliberate.