Plotters Anonymous

“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 –Plot-Structure-Diagram-800x618 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.

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Notes From a Small Conference, part 4: Character and Conflict (continued)

Last week, I started sharing notes I took at the 2013 Rose State Writers’ Conference. This week, I’ll continue with the rest of William Bernhardt’s great advice about character and conflict:

1.) The plot and the character have to be right for each other. How many times have you come up with a wicked good plot, but no characters ever stepped forward and said, “Me, me! I’ll do that! Pick me!”? It’s happened to me. Lots of times. I have this fantastic YA novel idea in my head about reincarnation, but every time I think about writing it,nothing happens. Why? No characters. Bernhardt made the point this way:  What traits does your character have that will enable them to prevail in this particular story? If none, then they aren’t right for each other.

2.) Did that one blow your mind? It did mine! But this point will emphasize why #1 is so important:  “Plot is the writer’s choice of events to tell the story of the character’s progress toward the goal.” Or, as Mr. Schumann said in the season finale of Glee, “It’s all about the journey.” So. This is why the seamless marriage of character to plot idea is so critical. Does your character belong in that world? If she’s a 14th-century woman with 21st-century ideas of sex equality, then probably not. Now, if she’s a 21st century woman transported back in time to the 14th century, then you might have a good marriage of character and plot!

3.) If that sounds a little mean, then you really won’t like this rule:  It’s not the writer’s job to be nice to their characters. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to let their characters get into as much trouble as possible. Things are going too easy? Throw something in their path. Remember, there’s a lot of conflict out there — natural, personal, person-to-person, between the protagonist and secondary characters, between the protagonist and the villain, between the protagonist and his desire for Starbucks. Whatever it is, add it.

4.) Therefore, your protagonist should fail before they succeed. Not only should there be setbacks, these setbacks should illustrate or illuminate your protagonist’s shortcomings. This is their journey, remember. Not only should they have external obstacles to overcome, but internal obstacles as well.

5.) Now, if you have to make your protagonist fail, then how do you make him likeable? No one likes a failure, right? Bernhardt gave us five surefire ways to make your protagonist likeable:

  • Make them good at what they do. If they are a trash collector, make them the very best one in the world. Or at least, the city.
  • Give them a sense of humor, especially a self-deprecating sense of humor. If they can make fun of themselves, readers will sympathize with them more — and pull for them. I just finished The Fault in Our Stars, and Hazel’s humor captured me on page 1 and kept me reading, even past the point I should have stopped. She has cancer; she can make fun of it.
  • Show them treating others well. Putting baby birds back into nests, or stopping traffic to get a turtle out of the road, or helping an elderly woman across the street. Whatever it takes. Think about Harry Potter, and the way he treats the house elves. We root for Harry because not only is he the underdog, he still takes time to treat others well.
  • Which is the fourth thing:  make them the underdog. Give them “undeserved misfortune or handicaps.” Again, Hazel’s cancer is undeserved, and yet she doesn’t let it stop her from having a life, traveling, and falling in love.
  • Have another character say, early on, that they like your protagonist. I think this is how Jay Asher gets around a total hatred of Hannah in his novel Thirteen Reasons Why. We know Clay was in love with her, and we like Clay; therefore, there must have been something good about her.

5.) I think this could be the single most important thing Bernhardt said, of many, many important things:  The protagonist’s story is only as interesting as the antagonist makes it. You MUST have an antagonist that is worthy of your protagonist. They must be of equal strength; it may be that your antagonist should be a little bit stronger, in fact. Should Harry have won the duel against Voldemort? Maybe not, because Voldemort was so much stronger. Voldemort drove everything in Harry’s life, from his parents’ death to that final conflict. Yet Harry prevailed.

6.) Readers hate coincidence. Never, ever do it. I know, it happens in real life, but remember, readers don’t want reality. And in fiction, coincidence doesn’t happen.

7.) Plot twists need to be “Holy crap, I should have seen that coming!” not “Holy crap, what the fruitbat was that? That makes no sense!” As anyone who’s ever tried to write a plot twist knows, they are devilish to write. You never want the reader to figure it out ahead of time (astute ones always will, anyway), and you don’t want it to be so obtuse that it makes no sense at all. One of the best examples I can think of is the play The Lady in Black. We know in the first ten minutes of the play that one of the characters had a daughter; it’s mentioned almost in passing. By the end of the play, we have become so immersed in the story that we’ve forgotten that tidbit — until suddenly, the play comes full circle and we are as horrified as the characters themselves.

Hopefully these have been helpful! The next Rose State Writers’ Conference is coming up September 19-21 at Rose State College in Oklahoma City. Here’s the link to the website:  http://www.rose.edu/shortcourse This year, Jacqueline Mitchard will be the keynote speaker and will be on the faculty!