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“People may or may not say what they mean… but they always say something designed to get what they want.”
— David Mamet
The big chicken and the egg question that a novelist grapples with as she sits down to start a new project is what to focus on first: should she dedicate herself to learning about her main character, researching what constitutes the character’s sovereign set of perceptions? Or should she try and get things happening on the page from the external perspective, kick off the action, make sure things are cooking in order to seduce the reader into flipping pages?
The good news is that this isn’t an either/or situation. In fact, they’ll inform each other. Each new plot point that a character navigates will illuminate something about her nature. And the protagonist’s idiosyncratic decision making will directly influence that cause and effect relationship between plot points. Think if Holden Caulfield had been plugged into the plot of “Madame Bovary”? How different would that novel would be? What if Chief Bromden of Cuckoo’s Nest fame was the star of “Eat Pray Love”?
Point is that the main character’s very unique way of handling the obstacles that appear in her path will not only further characterization but will make sure that there’s enough conflict to entice a total stranger to donate her time to your book.
That’s important for us as authors to remember. There’s a transaction happening: the reader is generously giving us five, seven, maybe even ten hours of her life depending on how long the book is. That’s her part of the transaction. Our part sounds simple but is incredibly difficult: we have to take them on a compelling journey. And nothing bores a reader quicker than a book in which nothing happens.
So, how can we make sure there’s enough conflict going on?
Narrative conflict is the foundation upon which story is constructed. It represents dramatically the physical, psychic, spiritual, and emotional tussles that your particular protagonist is dealing with throughout the duration of the romp. Often, it can be difficult to pinpoint both the internal and external dilemmas that you hope to confront your main character(s) with. Let’s look at how as authors, we can isolate what crises will visit them as the story unfurls.
Here’s how we can visually represent it:
(What your character wants) (The antagonistic forces working against their desires)
The leftward facing arrow represents what the character wants. They have to want something. Period. This isn’t a negotiable point. If your character doesn’t want anything, they aren’t emotionally invested in their story. And if your own characters aren’t involved in the story, why should a reader care? A writer’s chief pursuit is to illicit an emotional response in a reader: to make the reader feel something—more often than not, manufacturing that active, emotional involvement from the reader stems from the bond forged between reader and protagonist.
The rightward facing arrow represents the obstacles you’ve placed in your protagonist’s path to impede or prevent them from accomplishing their goals. These literal pressure points you’ve chosen should resonate with a metaphorical pressure point: you are putting certain pressures on the characters so they reveal new information about themselves to the reader. That word “new” is very important: don’t repeat yourself. Don’t tell your audience over and over again that a certain character is selfish. Tell this once, and then maybe tell us something else, something that might belie her selfishness: tell us about a moment of magnanimity. Humans are consistently inconsistent. Have the courage to tell your readers all angles of what makes your protagonist tick. Resist the bait of only showing the good side of a main character. Show us a more comprehensive litany of what makes them an individual, the lovely tangle of strengths and weaknesses that differentiates us from all other human beings.
The line that separates the two arrows is dramatic action. This line represents the impact of both sides. It is the moment where the opposing forces collide, smashing into one another. These are the moments when a character is revealing aspects of herself through action or inaction, depending on what’s happening in the particular scene.
One key word for dramatic action is duress. That is, what is the duress—either physical, emotional, or both—that you have introduced into your character’s life in this specific chapter, this certain scene? And how’s this immediate conflict affecting their world in the short term (and maybe the long term, too)?
Let’s look at a specific example: say this guy Marty really wants his ex-wife back. His inner-conflict is that he still loves her, yet she’s unsure of any reunion. His external conflict is that his ex is thinking of moving across the country to take a new job, start fresh. The crisis becomes how/when/and in what way will Marty try to get what he wants. And of course, from there, he’ll have to adapt his strategies as his wife responds to Marty’s actions (notice how her trajectory affects his trajectory). You start to see how characters’ interactions can influence future plot decisions—or more to the point: how duress can mutate into tines of new duress, as the book continues on.
Do you see these pressure points that the author has placed on Marty? The stakes are high. Will he win her back? Should he win her back? Does he deserve to? What does the word “deserve” mean in the context of the novel? What will he do if she moves away? These questions all spring from the internal and external conflicts, leading to new plot points as the book progresses.
Summary of conflict:
- Narrative conflict is the collision between what your character wants and the obstacles you’ve put in her path. (Marty wants his wife, but she’s moving across the country.)
- Great books have both internal and external conflicts. What will be your player’s internal one(s)? What external pressures have you introduced into their lives?
- Are you revealing new information about your protagonist with different plot points?
To my literary eye, there is a slight difference between narrative conflict and narrative tension. Whereas conflict is a direct response to a specific character dealing with a specific set of antagonistic forces, tension sort of hangs above the action, like a layer of fog. To say it another way: we can be a bit more general with how we’re defining tension.
Going forward, let’s define it as the discrepancy between these two paradigms:
This is the way my character would like her world to be
This is the way her world is currently constituted
Thinking about the disparities between these two can be an illuminating exercise. What if your character wants—on one hand—to get sober, stop gambling, or change her job? But what if—on the other very persuasive hand—she finds herself incapable of making these changes in her status quo?
The relationship between these two—her desired life and the life she’s currently living—can be a wonderful way for your reader to get to know this protagonist more intimately. In the end, that’s the novelist’s ultimate goal: almost everything we do is in the name of furthering our reader’s understanding of the characters occupying the pages. If we use active characterization tactics in which a reader interacts with a protagonist doing stuff, reaching for her wants, shoved out of her comfort zone by the author’s cruel hand, then the reader learns about the character straight from the reader’s analysis. We see plot point A intrude into the character’s life—and how she responds to this duress will lead her to the next external conflict. And how she deals with that hurdle will heave her toward the next obstacle, etc.
Quickly, we see the very intimate relationship between plot points and characterization. We see that they might actually be the same thing, or at least working toward the same goal. And perhaps the ultimate goal can be summed up like this: to create characters that are so compelling the reader cannot look away.
Even if what I’m going to suggest next does not make it directly into your story, this exercise is extremely useful in getting to know your character as well as you can. I call this super-tension, but it probably has several other names that aren’t as cool.
Here’s how the exercise works:
Identify what your character can’t live without, and then immediately find some way to take that thing away from them. Put the ultimate pressure on your player and see what she reveals to you. I promise it won’t be something you’d ever expect.
Novelists have to do a lot of discovery writing, especially in the nascent drafts. Spending time viewing your character under the auspices of super-tension will give you unfettered access into the deepest recesses of her heart and mind.
An unreliably narrated essay
In the New York Times review of my novel, “Termite Parade,” the concept of the unreliable narrator was mentioned more than once. It wasn’t meant as a criticism, per se, but the following problem remains: I don’t believe in the unreliable narrator.
In fact, I’ll take it to the extreme and say that I don’t think there’s such a thing as a reliable narrator. The sculpted set of facts that a protagonist doles to a reader is in essence propaganda, revisionist history (assuming we’re in the past tense). Why are certain moments from a narrator’s suggested life included and others not? Think of all the omissions, the disasters and celebrations and banal meanderings not even touched upon in a narrative. Then ponder the moments a protagonist does zero in and allow the reader to witness via scene or exposition. These are tactically included details; there’s a motive behind every disclosure. The question is who’s manufacturing these confessions.
The author? The narrator? Who’s in charge of reliably supplying the unreliable?
When I teach characterization, I always emphasize that authors should employ “useful schizophrenia.” It’s a fiction writer’s job to construct a heart, mind, and soul sovereign, idiosyncratic. If our characters are to be convincing body-doubles for real people, they must walk and talk and feel a range of emotion; they must giggle and have allergies and chew with their mouths open and grieve and play the harmonica (or whatever your particular story has them doing). The point is that they occupy an ecosystem in such a way that a reader recognizes the authenticity of life experience, even in a life that only exists on the page.
Of course, this idea of “useful schizophrenia” is an artifice, a dupe, a way for writers to dole more autonomy to the players. For if certain attitudes, biases, and crimes are assigned to the protagonists—rather than the writer—there’s a liberty to let the characters characterize themselves: they can stalk their habitats behaving however it is that they behave. The author is pardoned from the antics and can simply watch, channel, and document as the action unfurls.
This is the nascent stage of a character standing on her feet for the first time without the writer’s assistance. Yes, the author is always there, but the “useful schizophrenia” allocates thoughts, actions, and motives to the protagonist, letting them buoy the story. It’s a shift of emphasis in which Dr. Frankenstein sees the monster’s eyes open and turns it loose to live.
Once, the character begins to fend for herself, this is where unreliability becomes such a useful tool. Because, let’s face it, humans are ridiculous beasts when it comes to our own thoughts, actions, and motives. These delusions and rationalizations are at the core of compelling narrative, or what I’m going to categorize as Narrative Stockholm Syndrome (NSS) going forward.
I’m going to keep my argument to the 1st person, or the “I” voice (though this is a cogent argument for other points of view, as well). According to the OED, an unreliable narrator is someone whose “account of events appears to be faulty, misleadingly biased, or otherwise distorted.”
Let’s look at these juicy adjectives—“faulty”, “biased”, “distorted.” The writer in me sees these and immediately smiles. There’s freedom in their implied liabilities; there’s the possibility to forge a protagonist who has a nuanced vantage point, one with her own faulty, biased, and distorted consciousness.
Each of our minds is these things—every human has a thought process that tumbles with varying levels of haze (faulty), sometimes intentional and others unintentional. We also have varying levels of narcissism coating our days (bias). And of course, our memories are flexible, contradictory, often trussed up contortions that bear little resemblance to other people’s renditions of the same set of “facts” (distortions in interpretation).
There are facts in the world. 2 + 2 = 4. There’s a force called gravity. If my heart stops beating I’ll die. But in terms of narrative construction, for writers looking to bring their characters to life on the page, the idea of NSS can be a powerful weapon to have in our arsenal.
Here’s a very elementary and probably incorrect synopsis of Stockholm Syndrome: It’s a phenomenon that can occur when a hostage begins to feel for her captive. She understands their motives—why they’re doing what they’re doing—even if it’s malicious, violent, etc. Maybe she even defends them after the fact.
How does Stockholm Syndrome translate to narrative construction?
Well, one pleasure of reading is being imbedded in the main character’s thought process, ensconced in a different worldview. When a reader sees life through a new lens, the character’s consciousness, she is in a place she’s never been before. Even in realist modes of storytelling, the protagonist’s psyche is a NEW WORLD. This reminds me of the John Gardner writing exercise to describe a river from the point of view of somebody who’s just fallen in love, and then render the same setting from the perspective of one who has committed a murder. Are they seeing the same place?
Literally, the answer is yes. But when we think about how the contextual details of their situations colors the milieu, they are witnessing very different places. For a lover, the river might seem ripe with life, the water a sign of hope, cleansing, etc. Yet the murderer, perhaps racked with guilt and denial and self-hatred, doesn’t see this optimism in the scene’s setting; no, rather than seeing possibility, she sees nature’s cruelty, the water crashing the rocks, slowly eroding them, gnats swarming, overcrowding, a nearby tree leers like an accuser.
Here’s the heart of NSS: when a reader is thrust into a consciousness, camaraderie develops between the protagonist and the reader (much like captive and captor). Assuming that the author has done her job right and constructed a convincing logic system and thought process, the “friendship” stems from the reader being privy to the mechanisms of decision making. They see how/why our characters do what they do, and empathy develops, even if these characters are behaving badly. We can think of this as the kiss between psychological realism and motive, and if we take the time to dote on this prospect, it will involve our readers more intimately with the characters, and thus, up their affinity with the story as a whole.
When I build characters’ psychologies/decision making mechanisms, I always imagine my readers to be leaves floating on a stream. In this example, the stream is the character’s consciousness, the logic system. The reader, while captive in this foreign landscape, just floats along, observing, witnessing, and after awhile, understanding how a character is hard-wired, even if that character is vastly different than the reader herself.
Maybe it’s in this space that literature can perform its most important function: maybe it can teach empathy. Maybe looking through the perspective of someone who challenges or belies our moral coding can help open our minds to the experiences of others.
It’s my hope that the phrase “unreliable narrator” comes to be categorized as redundant. Of course, our narrators aren’t reliable. Who would want them to be? They’re telling their remix of history, their rationalizations. We’re the nosy neighbors peeking in and gobbling up the “facts,” even when we know the facts are contorted, slanted.
Besides, where would the fun be if things weren’t all gummed up, biased, and wonky? That’s the humanness, the “us.” We recognize ourselves in well rendered characters because they have a point of view, a vantage point, a voice, a heart, strengths and weaknesses. That’s not only what makes them real people on the page, it’s what brings us to life as well.
A litany of various things we can try to capitalize on from an NSS perspective:
- Questions about her/his motives.
- The reader can eavesdrop on the character beating herself up about decision making.
- “Play it to the end”: the reader can hear the character talk about how things will turn out (though we never know what’s actually going to happen in the future).
- On a similar line, maybe they “embrace the plural”: the various ways things will turn out for them. Or maybe they shun certain futures…
- Hypothesizing (superimpositions) about not only their life but any facets of the world going on around them.
- The reader can hear the character analyze things they’ve done or things that have happened to them. How do they talk about their own history? What a great tool for us to play with!
- The reader is privy to the characters shame, regrets, etc.
- And what about revisionist history? What if the character is “making things up” about their past—either consciously or not—and the reader gets to parse through this. How do we spin our own mythology?
- Morality/Moral dilemmas/God/religious coding—either from a family of origin perspective or not.
- Flat out lying to the reader, manufacturing reality, backstory, fictitious context—i.e. perhaps telling the reader they love their boyfriend when in fact the character is really trying to convince herself of this detail.
- “The ledger”: Maybe the main character thinks she should be rewarded for doing certain thing(s). Or maybe they think they should be punished for certain action(s)? How can you use this to further characterization?
Character-driven Plots: why our protagonists are in charge
A writer is a “subversive barbarian at the city gates, constantly challenging the status quo.”
— from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “What Is Poetry”
Here’s how the dictionary defines “plot”: The plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story, also called storyline.
Adam Sexton defines it as, “What happens [in the story].”
Local writer Annie Lamott teaches a mnemonic device to help her students remember traditional plot structure:
Action – Open with a scene (Lamott lobbies for opening with real-time), an inciting incident for the drama that follows—the lighting of the plot’s fuse.
Background – Contextual information to ground the reader in the specificities of the story’s reality.
Conflict – A protagonist wants something (hopefully something external and internal) and there will be forces in the story working against her/ him getting what they want.
Development – The journey the protagonist takes. The plot points chosen by the writer to illuminate the protagonist getting either closer or further away from what they’re trying to achieve (rising and complicating actions).
End – I’m putting words in Lamott’s mouth here, but I’m assuming this category is representative of closure, change (or the opportunity for change), and consequences/legacies of the protagonist’s decision making.
For our purposes, let’s be more precise with our working definition of plot. First, where is this magical storyline coming from? It starts in the author’s imagination, as she/ he constructs a character. But the best plots aren’t controlled by an authorial presence. Plot springs from the characters themselves (our protagonists).
Think about it like this: Authors create characters… characters create plot. This is due to the fact that the protagonist’s decision making will induce the next undulation, curve, revelation, heresy, etc. in the story.
Therefore, I’ll argue going forward that our working definition of plot should be this: A meaningful series of events. And the adjective meaningful is assigned to the protagonist—she or he will determine the moments we zero in on, the scenes to examine, the story we tell.
Of course, this sounds incredibly schizophrenic. It’s all a contrivance, an artifice. The writer masterminds all of these things. But the more we program ourselves to think of it in this way—that our protagonists are sovereign beings with independent consciousnesses from our own—the better prepared we are to traverse what I’m calling “character-driven” plotting. With this mindset, we can begin to talk tactics for describing our main players’ meaningful actions.
Keep in mind, there are many different styles of plot points over the course of a book. We want to use variance, so our reader never sees a pattern with how we’re doling out information. We want to surprise and excite them in every chapter (or short story).
In medias res (“into the middle of affairs”): This plotting tactic dates back—hence the Latin—to the Roman poet Horace, approximately 15 BCE. Much like the opening A-letter of Lamott’s mnemonic device, this is a suggestion to start in the middle of the action, the plot already underway.
In his novella “The Pedersen Kid,” William Gass begins like this:
Big Hans yelled, so I came out. The barn was dark, but the sun burned on the snow. Hans was carrying something from the crib. I yelled, but big Hans didn’t hear. He was in the house with what he had before I reached the steps.
It was the Pedersen Kid. Hans had put the kid on the kitchen table like you would a ham and started the kettle. He wasn’t saying anything. I guess he figured one yell from the crib was enough noise. Ma was fumbling with the kid’s clothes which were stiff with ice. She made a sound like whew from every breath. The kettle filled and Hans said, “Get some snow and call your pa.”
“Why?” I said.
“Get some snow.”
Notice that in this example of opening in medias res or with Lamott’s A-for-action, the narrative starts with plot points that have happened “off stage.” The reader quickly learns that the Pedersen Kid lives on the adjacent farm, which is a few miles away. He has staggered in a blizzard and fallen in the crib out front of the family’s farm from cold and exhaustion.
Immediately, Gass has introduced two conflicts: the immediate one dealing with trying to pack the Pedersen Kid in snow to deal with his frost bite/ “freezing-ness.” And the larger, lingering issue of why did the kid come in the middle of a blizzard, putting his life in jeopardy (the inciting incident for the drama to follow, as Big Hans, Pa, and the narrator, teenage boy, Jorge, decide to travel to the Pedersen farm to see what happened). All the Pedersen Kid can tell them is that a stranger showed up and locked his family in the basement, while he hid.
“He put them down the cellar so I ran,” the PK said… “He didn’t say nothing the whole time.”
As readers, we see the characters make an active choice here—to investigate what may or may not have happened at the Pedersen farm. This decision has mortal consequences. In terms of plotting, Gass not only starts in medias res, he uses the Pedersen Kid’s dialogue to push plot along, as the reader gets some “dangling bait”: an encoded clue that creates even more mystery surrounding the narrative’s circumstances.
There’s always time to circle back and pick up contextual information, but launching into the middle of the action has the potential to harness a reader’s enthusiasm in a way that she/he might not be able to put the book down.
Dangling bait: Plot is intertwined with structure. It’s not just what we say as writers, but also when we say it that creates wonder, mystery, and excitement in our readers. Stretching action across many pages or chapters can help solidify a reader’s attention. Plot is a meaningful series of events, but it’s also a manicured system of events. The order we parcel out information is just as vital as what those moments might contain.
Chapter beginnings are nice spots to entice our readers. Lynda Barry uses this technique masterfully in her novel “Cruddy,” the story of a teenage girl who has been kidnapped by her father. Here’s how chapter five starts: According to the newspaper version of the story, the father stole me, kidnapped me, snatched me up in the middle of the night and left the mother a note saying if she contacted the police or tried to find either one of us he would not hesitate to slit my throat.
Chapter conclusions can also make nice locales to dangle bait—this tactic is often called “cliff hanger endings”—postponing the payoff, forcing the reader to flip to the next chapter or even later in the book to find out how a certain scenario played out.
Toward the end of “The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao” the writer Junot Diaz ends a chapter with the protagonist in a sugarcane field with two armed gangsters, who are likely going to murder him. Here’s the chapter’s conclusion:
They [the gangsters] waited respectfully for him [Oscar] to finish and then they said, their faces slowly disappearing in the gloom, “Listen, we’ll let you go if you tell us what fuego means in English.
“Fire,” he blurted out, unable to help himself.
This moment is so meaningful, devastating, mired with danger, because the stakes are so high. Did Oscar get shot? Does our hero get out of harm’s way? How the hell did this moment end? Panicked and enthralled, we flip to the next chapter, hoping/needing to know what happened to our protagonist.
Note, also, that such a moment hangs precariously on characterization. By this late juncture in the book, we are “friends” with Oscar and root for him to make it out of this moment. If we’re not emotionally invested, the moment doesn’t work.
Mapping Images: The best stories contain internal and external conflicts for their protagonists. There needs to be synergy between these forces. In fact, perhaps we can even say that the best external conflicts map to what a character’s internal dilemma is (again, this idea of a character-driven plot: the action springing forth from the internal dilemma raging in the character his/ herself).
Here’s an example from Raymond Carver’s “Careful.” During the scope of this outwardly quiet story, Lloyd who’s recently moved into an apartment by himself is visited by his wife, Inez. Lloyd is an alcoholic (duh, this is a Carver story). Anyway, one afternoon while he’s drinking champagne by himself, Inez stops by.
It just so happens that on the day she pays him a visit, this is also the day that:
He’d awakened that morning and found that his ear had stopped up with wax. He couldn’t hear anything clearly, and he seemed to have lost his sense of balance…
Carver, a true master at putting pressure on his characters, knows that the story of Lloyd’s clogged ears isn’t meaningful if he’s alone, so he has to bring Inez onto the stage, too.
When Inez knocks on his front door, here is the interchange:
“I didn’t think you heard me,” she said. “I thought you might be gone or something…”
“I heard you,” Lloyd said. “But just barely.”
In this examination on the legacies of alcoholism—Lloyd’s internal conflict—Carver has found a brilliant mapping action to externalize it. Notice that it isn’t that Lloyd is choosing not to listen to Inez. It’s that he literally can’t hear her because of the wax.
More importantly, however, on a subtextual level notice that he can’t hear her because of his alcoholism. Again, it isn’t that he’s choosing not to hear her; it’s that his disease has evolved (devolved?) to such a place that Lloyd is no longer in control of himself. Carver has externalized the emotional stakes of the story.
Consequences of decision making: Whether a character is making a moral, immoral, apathetic, or self-serving decision, these all have costs, values.
Shannon Burke’s “Black Flies” is a novel about overworked, overtired, jaded EMTs in Harlem. Men and women who have seen too much damage to value human life as much as we’re “supposed” to.
As readers, we see many dismal scenes along the journey, but here’s the main plot point that pushes the protagonist to the precipice of his emotional climax: a moment in which all of the smaller plot points that have preceded this moment culminate in a life changing decision.
September 5, 1993, 6:40 pm, at the end of an eighty-hour week, at the end of a month where I’d practically lived on the ambulance…Rutovsky and I walked into a six-by-twelve foot room to find a wooden floor slick with thickening blood, and a baby, not moving, curled on its side next to a bloody placenta. The mother was up on one arm trying to cut the twisted umbilical cord with the jagged end of a broken crack pipe…
“How’s the baby?” I asked [Rutovsky]?
“It’s dead. Stillbirth. An HIV-positive crackhead who’s also been taking methadone during her pregnancy. Whatta ya expect?”
The interesting aspect of plotting that’s taking place here, though, is that the baby is not dead. Our disillusioned EMTs did not bother to thoroughly examine the child due to the grisly, “pointless” circumstances of her birth. Their lives, their jobs just changed forever, as news spreads about their irresponsible behavior.
Notice that it’s the “action in their inaction” that makes this a compelling plot point. They made a decision by not making one. Burke is able to frankly and gruesomely confront the notion that as EMTs see humanity at its worst—night after night—these men have been robbed of the ability to empathize, to care about others (and what should we as humans care about more than a newborn baby?). Again, we see the intersection of internal and external conflicts.
Yeah, but it isn’t always decision making, right? What about accidents and such?: Of course, not all plot points come from the main character’s decision making. Often, there are accidents, unpredictable acts of violence, circumstances well outside any human realm of influence. But how does the character respond to this unwanted stimuli? What are its legacies?
Aimee Bender plays whimsically with this idea in her short story, “The Rememberer”:
My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.
Think of all the plot contained in this one tiny paragraph: 1) We’re picking it up in the middle of the action 2) it maps to the protagonist’s internal conflict of feeling a dearth of progress in their relationship 3) she dangles the delectable bait of an idiosyncratic conceit 4) an external pressure has been placed on our main character and we’ll observe how she responds to it 5) The line I tell no one shows the protagonist making a decision for silence, non-action, and thus, the story is off and running. Bender displays a masterful and deft hand for pushing plot ahead.
On stage vs. Off stage action: Sometimes, it’s not in the story’s best interest to dramatize every heightened moment, but such scenarios gain more power by existing in the shadows. In “Nobody Move” Denis Johnson chooses not to render a scene in which a character is shot. The reader finds out about it after the fact, via a phone call. The last scene the reader has seen is two men riding in a car together. This is what comes after the section break:
Standing at the payphone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly.
Johnson hopes that this tactic lures us further into the story. That we can’t believe the great swerve the plot has suddenly just taken, and that we’re on the edge of our seats to figure out what happened.
As with most writing tactics, we have to take these situations on a case by case basis. Often, we’d want to render the moment of the shooting. But remember that this tactic is in your arsenal, too.
Needing to know vs. Wanting to Know: How are you as a writer defining plot in your work? Is it solely what we need to know, in order to understand the chain of events? Or do you allow yourself more latitude to color in areas of interest that are not solely related to a reader’s ability to interpret/ understand causality between plot points? Are you allowing digressions, asides, interesting anecdotes that might not relate causally to the narrative but enhance it in some other way?
As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of these questions. A good book isn’t “just the facts”; a good book is rich in character, and character springs from an array of knowledge about the protagonist’s life. Especially in early drafts, grant yourself the flexibility to write lots of excess material, knowing that it may not make the final version.
Disjunctive plot points: Not all the information needs to come in a neat, tidy, orderly fashion. Causality doesn’t have to be linear. In fact, it can raise the stakes greatly to get the action out of sequence.
The short story writer Susan Steinberg thrives in such territory. She lets her language recur and echo around certain images, yet each time we revisit an image, our understanding is increased. Here’s an example from her story “The Garage.”
We saw two cars in the garage. The ladder lay on its side. There were rusted paint cans by the wall… The brooms cast a shadow like the shadow of a man.
Later we get this:
Our father stacked the milk crates and stood on the stack. The ladder leaned against the coupe in way that likely scratched it.
This is really a story about our father. About how he hanged himself in the garage that day. We used to say he hung himself. But the word is hanged.
As we decode Steinberg’s mystery, we realize that our 1st person plural narrators (“we”) are teenage twins who discovered their father’s dead body in the garage. Steinberg teases this detail out, though, first showing the banal details around the body, lingering on the setting in a way that alerts a close reader that something is awry in this tableau. And when she finally reveals the devastating facts, we’re eating out of the palm of her hand.
In conclusion: Plotting from a reader’s perspective might be as easy to define as “what happens in a story.” But for authors, this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We seek meaningful action, situations that don’t merely relate to one another via cause-and-effect, but external turns of plot that speak to our character’s nature, his/ her emotional journey throughout the narrative. The more we’re able to intertwine the interior and the exterior conflicts, our readers will be greater invested in the outcome.
We talked about plot as a meaningful series of events, and as the authors, we need to let the characters determine what’s meaningful to their stories. Is this a sleight-of-hand, a way for us to temporarily trick ourselves, a backdoor way of learning even more about our protagonists through the rough drafting process? Absolutely. And it’s a necessary permission for us to gather all the data we possibly can. The more information we arm ourselves with, it will become increasingly obvious what an end-reader needs to see in the final, published draft.
I’d like to introduce you to my theory on “plaracterization.” Yes, it’s a word I made up, yet it’s useful for how we discuss the kiss between plot and character:
Plot + characterization = Plaracterization
The theory goes like this: as you get deeper into your rough drafts, the lines of what constitutes a plot point and what goes into the characterization bucket will be drastically muddled, muddied in a good way.
When we start off as apprentice writers, yes, it’s useful for us to think about plot and characterization as separate commodities. The deeper we get into the drafting process, however, we can’t sequester these from each other. They become grafted, eventually they grow into the same entity. Plot and character become indistinguishable the further we draft ahead in our novels.
Let me explain this in theory first and then we’ll look at a specific example.
- Let’s examine the plot aspect of plaracterization: plotting is directly related to our characters internal and external conflicts. You’ll remember that our protagonists have to want something—they need to be striving toward some goal(s) as the book moves on. They work toward accomplishing their aspirations, thus getting what they want, probably working even harder as the narrative reaches its climactic action as the author puts additional pressure on her protagonist.
If plot can be defined as a meaningful series of events, the varying plot points will reveal new aspects of your character. Each hurdle that she has to leap over on a chapter by chapter basis will wash the reader in new character-rich information. Each new plot point introduced reveals more and more of the protagonist’s nature, making it easy to see the pl- in plaracterization.
- The characterization component springs forth from these plot driven revelations: if in fact we have motion on the page, plenty of plot, plenty of obstacles in our protagonist’s path, it’s how they respond to these elements that will move the novel ahead. For instance, if your character’s in a liquor store and it’s being robbed, how will she act? Does she do something brave? Cower on the floor? Help the crooks to clean out the register to save herself?
And notice, too, that depending on how she responds to this specific plot point, the way the novel moves from here will be dependent on her actions (or inactions). Because of how she engages with a certain obstacle, the present action (plot) is directly affected.
The main point of all this is to see the symbiosis that has to exist between plot and characterization. Your plot will only work with your specific protagonist. If you try to jam another main character in your plot sequence, the book won’t hold up. Why? Because a different person will respond differently to the pressure points the author pushes throughout the book. Another character thrust into that same liquor store robbery might do something that would have never occurred to the original protagonist: she might get so nervous that she breaks into song, serenading the robbers with a remix of Cher’s “If I Can Turn Back Time.”
Point is the sequence of events is tethered closely to whom the reader is following on the page. You change the character, then you change the logic system, the moral compass, values, the backstory, the future aims—and if those things are altered so too will be the decisions the protagonist makes under duress.
Okay, let’s get out of the abstract and peek at a specific example. Maybe a certain character, Wade, has found a briefcase full of money in the back of a taxi and what he wants is to keep it. From his perspective, he has keep it. See, Wade has been on a string of bad luck—lost his job, estranged from his wife and daughter, and this newfound wealth might be his ticket to getting his family back.
At the same time, he’s separated from his wife and he hopes his newfound wealth might convince his spouse to give him a second chance. You can see that in this example it might not to realistic that the money will win Wade his family back, but that doesn’t matter: all that matters is that Wade truly believes that the money will cure what ails his reality.
Of course, whoever misplaced said stacked briefcase is probably missing it. If I suddenly lost a loaded briefcase I might try to track it down, or if I couldn’t track it down, I might hire somebody better suited for the job. The kinds of people that carry large quantities of cash in a briefcase probably know just how to find this mysterious stranger who’s appropriated their belongings. Thus, Wade’s decision to take it forces the briefcase’s rightful owners’ to act. Wade’s done something and now the owners must react to Wade’s initial action. They’re decision making is affecting not only the narrative moving forward but each other, as they volley to get what they want in the scope of the story.
Each plot point you include in the action is there for a reason: to reveal new aspects of your protagonist and propel the action forward. This is the heart of plaracterization—the these two things that can happen simultaneously.
In summation: Because your protagonist will affect, decide, alter, mutate, etc, all your plot points based on her specific ways she responds to these stimuli, it’s not necessarily helpful to think of plot and character as separate concerns. They transcend separateness. They are the same. In the end, the point is that the author gets deep enough in the process to truly maximize this collision point between plot and character. We must immerse ourselves and that vast base of knowledge can only be accrued on the page, following our characters around seeing them respond to a variety of stimuli.