“Hi, I’m Robyn, and I have a problem with plotting.”
(A chorus of “Hi, Robyn!” goes up around the room. Someone says, “So how long has this problem been going on?”)
It’s hard to say. I never used to think about plotting. I mean, who does when they first start out? You’re just excited about the characters and the setting, and sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and write, or you get home late from work and write to unwind, and you just don’t think about the plot, because you have to get the story out. You know? And then one day you wake up and realize you’ve Got A Problem.
“Tell us about it!”
Glad you asked. I used to be a pantser. Sometimes, I pretend I still am. I used to just let the characters dictate the story to me. I’d write for hours, letting them do whatever they wanted. The coolest part? Waking up and realizing that I didn’t remember a single thing I’d just written. It was all fresh and new, and exciting. I had no idea what I’d written, but I liked it. It was good.
And then . . . I sort of stopped doing that.
“Why? What happened?”
I don’t remember when, or why. I just remember things going differently for me. I mean, I’d get flashes of scenes and dialogue, and I’d write them down, and then I started having to work different hours, and . . . I went to college. That was it. I’m sure that’s then the problems really started. Academic writing requires thinking and planning and thesis statements and proof and research. Outlines. Drafts. Somehow . . . somehow, that made it into my fiction. Yes. I’m sure of it. That’s when it happened. That’s when it all changed.
And now . . . I’m stuck.
(Lots of nodding heads and knowing looks.)
Yes. I have a plot problem.
This is the typical plot diagram we all know and love – and love to hate. Looks simple enough, doesn’t it? Fill in the blanks, and make up the rest. So why isn’t it easy for me? Why can’t I use this darn thing? I see it, I want to use it – but you might as well be asking me to do a complex equation in theoretical physics. In fact, that might be easier.
(A few laughs. Someone in the back starts to hum “Soft Kitty.”)
It’s not funny! Not really. I mean, I know my characters so well, and . . . but do I? Do I really? (I look around the room, into eyes that are beginning to question my sanity.) You know, I’m not sure I do. Not all of them.
Not my antagonist.
Your protagonist can only be as great as your antagonist makes him. Isn’t that right? So what is my antagonist doing to my protagonist? While she’s working on subplots and research and all that, what is my antagonist doing behind the scenes? Holy cow. Is that it? Can it be that simple? Can it be as simple as what is my antagonist doing to get what it wants?
It’s the same question my MC always asks, too. What does this thing want? It’s an answer she does get in the end, but . . . what is the antagonist doing to get what it wants during the rest of the novel? Not a damn thing! Not really.
And that’s one of the problems with plotting, and one that I think a lot of books and articles on plotting don’t really talk about: your antagonist drives the plot just as much as your MC and your secondary characters. It has to, doesn’t it? Your MC wants something. So does your antagonist. What they want is often either the same thing, or things that are at cross-purposes with each other. Think about Indiana Jones and Rene Belloq. They want the same thing: the Ark of the Covenant. But they want it for totally different reasons. Or think about Harry Potter and Professor Quirrell. Quirrell wants the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry wants to keep him from having it. (Though it’s funny that in both cases, what’s driving the antagonist is loyalty to a background character – for Belloq, the Nazis; for Quirrell, Voldemort.) Take Katniss and President Snow, then. Snow needs Katniss to do just one thing: either win or lose the Hunger Games. But Katniss isn’t going to let him have what he needs, is she? Nope.
Your antagonist does need a good reason for doing what he’s doing, and wanting what he wants. Your antagonist needs to be believable, after all. Is it a crossroads demon that needs to collect souls? We get that. Is it a vampire that needs to drink blood and keep its secret from the world? We get it. Is your antagonist a power-hungry politician? We’ll be rooting for him to die at the end. 🙂 Either way, both of them have to drive the plot.
Your MC is only as great as your antagonist makes him. Your plot, therefore, can only be as great as they both make it.
I’ve got some work to do. 🙂
The diagram can be found at www.stanthonygardena.org.