Thursday, August 29, 2013

Step 5: Plot is a Verb

Thought for the Day: "Plot is character revealed by action." ~Aristotle
Often the hardest thing about writing fiction is deciding what should HAPPEN. It's probably why so many (I would argue all) writers write from personal experience. We can have great ideas--a society that "reaps" its young people to fight to the death on TV, for example--but turning an idea into a plot is tough.

Stewie.jpg What might help: start with CHARACTER. If you are writing a story, think first of the people who populate it. Name them, describe them (not just physically, but by temperament too), and--most important--determine what drives them. What does your main character WANT? 
Like Aristotle, Anne Lamott says that "plot grows out of character," in other words, the kind of person your main character is will cause things to happen. Think of the "plot" of your own life. What has happened to you so far? Are you a great and hard-working student who just won a scholarship to the school of your choice? Your character created that plot, in the same way your character might create a different kind of plot if your innermost self believed that a college education was useless and therefore you said no thanks to the scholarship and instead hitchhiked across the county getting to know your fellow man. Imagine what kind of plot might grow out of that character in action! (Sorry, parents, but somebody has to write On the Road...)

boxing gloves.jpgThe other thing that will make plot happen: CONFLICT. Nick Daws says that conflict is "the engine which drives a short story. It might be a conflict between characters, or between your key character and something in her environment, or within your main character herself...but conflict is what 'hooks' readers and keeps them involved." Conflict will not only hook readers, it will hook you into continuing to write the story! It will give you something to write about, a plot.

Daws goes on to say, "Give readers characters they will care about, then make life difficult for them by introducing conflict into their lives." Think of these great literary characters. What is it that they want, and what conflict is introduced that then results in the plot?

THE-GREAT-GATSBY.jpg Gatsby in The Great Gatsby
What he wants: Daisy!
Conflict: Daisy is already married, and also of a social class to which Gatsby can only aspire, in spite of all his wealth.

Wilbur the pig in Charlotte's Web
wilbur.jpgWhat he wants: Wilbur wants to live happily ever after in the barn with his friends.
Conflict: Wilbur is going to be killed and eaten unless Charlotte the spider can save him!

huck.jpg Huck Finn in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
What he wants: To escape civilization.
Conflict: Civilization doesn't want him to escape. Also, civilization says that slavery is right, and through his relationship with Jim, Huck starts to suspect otherwise.

Writing Prompt # 5:
Step 1: If you have a short story or other piece of fiction already in progress, choose a character in it. That character will probably be the main character, but it doesn't have to be.


If you do not have a work in progress, think of someone you know and turn him or her into a character, starting perhaps with that person as he or she is, but fictionalizing as you go for Step 2.


See Twelve Ways To Generate Ideas for Fiction under Writing Advice below, and try number 3.

Step 2: Write a character sketch that thoroughly describes who the character is, inside. What, in other words, is your character's character? What does he fear, what makes him happy, what makes him crazy, who are his best friends and why, what is his life goal, what stands in the way of that life goal, what are his habits, his routines, his hobbies, his aversions? What has shaped his character in indelible ways (maybe his mother died before he ever got to know her, maybe he is the eldest son of an ambitious man, maybe he is a nerd in love with the prom queen, whatever large or small circumstance that has gone into making your character who he is. at the end of your sketch, write this question: what does the character of Blank want more than anything? Then answer it.

Step 3: Play God. Say Blank wants more than anything to be a country music star. (I don't know, you decide what Blank wants!) As God, what are you going to do to stand in his way? Strand him 20 miles outside of Nashville when his car breaks down. Make him fall in love with a girl who hates country music. Break his guitar strings. Introduce him to an unscrupulous music producer. Or maybe all of these things and more! CREATE CONFLICT.

So, at the end of this week's writing prompt you will have a full character sketch, a statement of that character's central desire, and a list of things that will thwart that desire. If at this point, a plot unfolds in your head, feel free to keep writing...

Writing Advice:
How To Structure Your Short Story by Nick Daws.pdf
Twelve Great Ways To Generate Ideas for Fiction by Nick Daws.pdf

Inspirational Words: "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." ~Albert Einstein

Editorial note: Ever since I heard this line, it keeps coming back to me. I do think Einstein was pretty smart, but his intellect would have been of no use without his persistence! When you are tempted to give up, opt out, move on, remember Einstein and stay with the problem longer.

Resources and Links:
Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers
Conflict and Character within Story Structure

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