Merry Christmas Everyone!!! I hope you all enjoyed yourselves, and I wish you the best in the New Year, 2011!!! :D
As many of you know, I've been working on a series concerning the Elements of the Story. So far I've been through theme, characters, and some sort of world or setting to put the characters in. Today we're going to be talking about plot. I know, I know: shouldn't "Plot" have been written along with "Characters"? Well, maybe it should have. But when I was writing the entry for Characters, I wasn't quite ready to write one for plot. I think I'm more ready now.
To start off, let's go back and look at what we discussed earlier in the "Characters" entry. In the characters entry, I talked about what it takes to make a good character and, as many of you know, the work is immense. Why? Because a character has to seem real in the reader's mind, and to seem real, the character has to be just about as complicated as any other human being. Of course, there's only one Being in the entire world or out of it who can actually do the job right: writers just have to pick off what they already know.
There was some talk after I posted the Element on Characters about whether or not Characters really are the driving force of the plot. This is a tricky subject, and to be honest, I'm not saying one element is more important than the other one. In fact, I think both of them are equally important. Without one of them, you can't have the other: simple as that. The tricky part is finding the balance between them. In my earlier post I did state that I thought characters definitely came before the plot. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that I am a "Character First" novelist. In fact, to be quite truthful, I hate sitting down just to flesh out a character, and as a result I don't do it very often. I would much rather sit down and have my characters flesh themselves out as I torture them with all the horribly, awfully, terrible things I have planned to happen to them in my plot.
After reading through this discussion, I decided to further research the subject. I pondered the questions I'd read and asked myself others, and finally came to this conclusion: even if you are a "Plot-first" Novelist (as I believe I am), characters still always come before the plot. And yes, they are the driving force. And apparently I'm not the only "Plot-first" Novelist who thinks this. In fact, Jeff Gerke, owner and publisher of Marcher Lord Press, states something very similar in his book "The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction".
Does this mean the plot is any less important?
No. Not at all. Just because Characters are what drive the plot doesn't mean the plot is less important than the characters. After all, you may have the best and most complicated characters in the entire world, but if you don't have a plot nothing will happen to them. Because that is what a plot is: a plot is the sequence of events that (literally) make the story in a novel or a play.
Either that, or it is secret, hostile plan put in act by your super, evil villain to take over the world.
The plot is basically all the things you have your character do or that you do to your character. It is, in essence, the reason that the story is being told: the interesting bits that make the reader want to know what happens next.
"But if the plot is all this," you say, "then why did you say that the Characters are the driving force of the novel? Sounds to me like the plot is the driving force."
And this is where it gets tricky.
Just like I said that the plot is the sequence of events that make up the story of a novel, so are the characters the ones who do the "events" or have the events done to them. Without a character, your novel's plot won't have anyone to do it's evil terriblness to, and without a plot your character won't have anything to do. These two elements need each other. You can't think about one without thinking about the other.
So, to continue, what is in the makings of a plot? Wow… Hold on a minute. I'm supposed to think up all those events right now?! Yipes!
Ok, let's try this a different way. What do you want your story to be about? That is the first question you need to ask yourself. Little plot details can fall in later, but the first things you need to know when you sit down to write your novel are your Hero's motives and the stakes – the what-will-happen-if-your-hero-doesn't-come-through element. These are the most important parts of any plot. Often times the hero's motive is tied in with the stakes:
- The hero does something – because – such-and-such will happen if he doesn't.
- The hero has to do something – OR – such-and-such will happen.
Either one of these choices are the beginnings of a good plot.
Let me give you an example. In "Song of the Daystar" I stuck with the first choice: Curron (my hero) goes on a quest to find and change the king's mind about the Brethren of Anahdor – because – if he doesn't change the king's mind, the king is going to kill all Believers in the land… including him.
There you have it. Curron's motive to find the king and change his mind is the fact that he will be killed if he doesn't. The stakes are basically the same thing.
Now let's try choice number 2, which I used in "Eldrie".
In Eldrie my MC doesn't even know the overall stakes at first. His motive to leave his first home is not to get killed by the shadow creatures hunting him. It is my secondary character that has the true motive and knows the overall stakes: my secondary character has to keep my MC safe and get him to accept his true identity in an entirely different type of world – OR – my super villain will win and slowly cover the free world in darkness. (Trust me, the full plot is WAY more complicated than that, but it's too long and difficult to explain here.)
What's the difference between the two choices? With the first one your main character has to realize what could happen if he fails because he made the choice to do something-or-other. With the second one, your MC doesn't necessarily have to know the stakes at first, but someone else might need to. And there you have it: Motive + stakes. The true making of a primary plot.
But now that you have the outside plotting figured out, what about the inside? What is your character thinking, and why?
In every good novel I've read, the memorable characters usually have some sort of internal conflict going on throughout the story which helps that character grow in himself, whether for good or evil… a Character Arc, if you will. This all has to do with internal plotting and making your character believable. I learned it this way: there are "flat" characters and "round" characters. The flat characters are the ones whose ideas and points of view never really change: they are set in their ways throughout the story. The round characters are the ones who change their ways of thinking for better or for worse. They are usually the ones who have internal struggles and personal stakes. They are the characters that read and feel believable… like they could actually be real. Until the character realizes the truth behind their internal struggle and changes their mind (or doesn't), only the author actually knows what the character's mental conclusion will be in the end. This is a type of plotting in itself and it is quite important.
Basically, it looks like this:
Internal Plotting = the author working out the character's internal conflict over the space of the story.
- Character knowing why he has to do something and what it will cost him personally, and fighting with himself over his choice because of that.
- Character believing one thing while being told another thing that makes more sense to him than the thing he already believes, and fighting with himself over his choice because of that.
The truth is, you can have the most amazing surface plot ever, but if your character just goes through the motions of the plot without ever complaining or ever thinking about it, the reader is going to get bored. Seriously. In that case the character is more like a puppet who can't think for himself. What you want your character to be, though, is a "puppet" who seems more and acts more like a real person than a toy being worked by a human hand.
So you have your villain ready to blow up the entire planet and your hero has to make a choice between flying off in a space pod to save his skin, or pushing the deactivation button that will save the world but ultimately kill him… and he chooses to sacrifice himself for the people of the world… without considering what's actually going to happen to him when he pushes that stupid red button. Who in their right mind would do that? I sure wouldn't. I mean, I might choose to sacrifice myself in the end, but you can bet I would consider my options very carefully before coming to a solid conclusion: I'd be counting the stakes.
You want a better example? Alright. Here it comes.
Consider Jesus praying in the garden before he died.
The outward "plot" of that story is that Jesus was born into the world as God's only begotten son, and that he had to die on a cross and shed his blood, and then rise again on the third day to save the world from the curse of death – OR – man would never be cleansed from their sins, Satan would win, and we would all be lost to God forever. You have your motive and your stakes.
The internal "plot" was that Jesus knew why He had to die and what it would cost Him personally. He didn't question God about what He had to do, but He did fight with His mortal, human self over it. Jesus was born as a man so that He could go through what men go through… so that He, as God, could know and understand the choices and the fears that men have. And when it came to sacrificing Himself for the sake of the world – when it came to dying a horrible and torturous death – you bet He was scared! Just as scared as any other man would be. And you can bet He fought with Himself internally over that ultimate choice: "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me!" (Luke 22: 42). That was His flesh fighting back, saying "I don't really want to die! I'm only 33, for pity's sake! I've still got so much life to live, and those whips and the nails are going to hurt like the dickens!!! And hey, if I've got a choice between living a full and happy life or dying a horrible and torturous death, I would much rather live, thank you very much."
"Nevertheless… not my will, but Thine be done."
"Even though I know it's going to hurt… even though I know what it will cost me in this physical form… I'm going to trust you, Father. My life is Yours, and I will lay down this mortal life to save the people that We created… and that We love."
The stakes were high with both choices. He knew that. He thought it over. He fought with Himself over it. But in the end, He knew there was only one right choice. And He made the choice, even though He knew what it would cost Him.
That is THE ULTIMATE EXAMPLE of surface and internal plotting. Everything you need to know is right there. If you're ever struggling with your plot, don't hesitate to look the story up for yourself. I don't think God could have written it any plainer.