And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.

You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.

Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.

To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.

Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner

neeta lindI never miss an opportunity to talk about Blade Runner. One day Dave and I were discussing it and said: ‘which event is the midpoint?’

My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…

When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.

Midpoint, schmidpoint

Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.

Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.

• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.

Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.

If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.

Thanks for the Blade Runner pic, Neeta Lind  Thanks for the Jenga pic, Ed Garcia

ebookcovernyn3The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.

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  1. #1 by Tony McFadden on December 20, 2014 - 11:05 pm

    Hey, Roz. Congrats on the book.

    I write crime fiction, a little bit of sci-fi (and I’m working on a sci-fi/police procedural right now). I can’t say which is more difficult. Plot is definitely more prominent and gets the most attention, at least initially. Act 3 needs to unspool in a way which allows the reader to believe the ending, however fantastic it is. Much of my prep work is plot. I think it’s safe (and honest) to say that far less work goes into my character development.

    That said, as I go through the re-writes toward a final document, I *try* to develop the characters to a level that they have three dimensions. Probably the aspect of me writing that could use the most work.

    (I like to use the midpoint as a “this changes everything” moment, when a new piece of information makes the protagonist and reader realise that the path they were hurtling down is the wrong path, requiring a shift in focus and amplification of intent.)

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 21, 2014 - 10:23 am

      Hi Tony!
      With the kind of book you write, I think you’re developing it the right way. The story will be more in charge then the characters, and then you’ll catch up and fill the characters in.
      And yes, I agree about the midpoint. Gustav Freytag identified it as a kind of pinnacle, where something major sends everything in to a downward dive. Amplification is a good word to use here!

  2. #3 by DRMarvello on December 21, 2014 - 12:36 am

    Hi Roz. Merry Christmas and congrats on the new book! I look forward to getting the print edition.

    I write fantasy adventure stories. I’m a planner, but I tend to develop the plot and the characters at the same time, “Snowflake-style.” I can’t figure out the story until I know who the characters are, and I can’t fully understand the characters until I think about what they will be doing in the story.

    My current WIP, a fantasy western, is a prime example. I couldn’t figure out a story until I had “cast” the primary characters. But then I changed the nature of certain characters based on the story I wanted to tell. Character and plot have a synergistic relationship I have trouble separating. How do you know what will happen until you know who is involved? How do you know how someone will make decisions until you know what happens? The fun part is figuring all that out.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 21, 2014 - 10:26 am

      Hi Daniel – same to you! There will be a print edition – just as fast as the Createspace fairies can get proofs to me. Or should that be elves?
      You’re right that character and plot are chicken and egg. They help each other. And plot reveals character as well. One of the points I discuss in the book is how tricky it is to consider the two aspects separately – but in analysing how to make books, it helps. Good luck, and I wish you seasonal snowflakes as well as storytelling ones!

  3. #5 by kinneret on December 21, 2014 - 3:46 am

    Hi Roz,
    Have you read Save the Cat? This book, which was recommended to me by a friend who is a screenwriter, is supposed to be the ultimate in film structure analysis. I did read it and Hollywood films have many more of these crux points or whatever you call them than books, it seems. (Actually Hollywood film structures are so formulaic at this point that I dread seeing most movies.) That’s an interesting question about what is more difficult to develop, a character or a plot, but I guess it also depends as you say on the genre. James Joyce was definitely not focusing on plot in Ulysses. It is all about the characters and the way the story is told. I like DR Marvello’s comment, too. synergistic… I would imagine the challenges are different depending on the writer’s strengths and the genre.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 21, 2014 - 10:36 am

      Hi Kinneret
      Yes, I have indeed read Save the Cat, and many of the other screenwriting books. As you say, theories of film structure have almost become a tyrannical force, with audiences able to predict ‘here we’ll have a turning point’ etc. Stories in prose might or might not have them, or they might not be so obvious, which means the reader doesn’t see what’s actually going on in the layer underneath the words. But the vast majority of stories will have crescendos and turning points, and theories of structure can tell us where to best deploy them. Or, put another way, if the story is dragging or is rushed, looking at its structure can solve the problem.
      That’s the real point of the story structure theories. A lot of great stories conform to the three-act structure, and readers don’t realise because they’re so engrossed. It’s well hidden – but it’s still there. If you’re aware of it to the extent that you feel manipulated or that a formula is at work, then the story and technique are at fault – not the storytelling principles!
      But as you say, not all books aim to tell a story. Ulysses is an experience, it’s meditating in the mind of another.
      Thanks for making a great point.

      • #7 by kinneret on December 21, 2014 - 4:41 pm

        I’m really glad that I found you and your site, Roz. I’m writing a first novel and thinking about this now and ask myself– are the scenes in the right order, well placed? I’m an editor by trade (but not fiction). I haven’t studied literary structure (of course, though, I’m well familiar with the three-act structure since I was a drama major years ago). So it’s something that’s on my mind.

        • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 21, 2014 - 6:28 pm

          Thanks!
          If you were a drama major, that should have given you an interesting and useful grounding for writing fiction. You’ll not only know about structure, but also about understanding characters – assuming you did some acting too. Nice to meet you.

          • #9 by kinneret on December 21, 2014 - 6:54 pm

            Nice to meet you, too, Roz! I loved studying drama (I was more interested in playwriting and theater history.) I guess I would say one possible advantage was dialogue. But I think anyone with a good ear can write dialogue. Dialogue seems similar to people being able to hear music in their head or having perfect pitch or actors/people who can pick up accents easily. In terms of theater, early theater didn’t seem to have as much development of characters in the modern sense as much as archetypes (the Greeks, Italian Theater, French..) . I think some of the best characters in modern theater have come from Eugene O’ Neil, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller.

  4. #10 by Consuelo Roland on December 21, 2014 - 8:24 pm

    Reblogged this on Consuelo Roland, Writer.

  5. #12 by bonniecrafts on December 22, 2014 - 5:02 am

    Reblogged this on bonniecrafts's Blog and commented:
    Been looking forward for the book. Finally its here. Thanks #Roz.

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