Character as Plot Driver

Libbie Hawker uses character to describe how she builds her plots. Every story begins with a character, and that character must have a flaw. Hawker calls it a "pivotal" flaw to emphasize its importance. This flaw should exist deep in the core of the character. Consciously or subconsciously (probably subconsciously), this flaw should drive the character's actions.

The arc of the story is constructed around this flaw. The events of the story should serve to slowly reveal this flaw to the character, bring it to the character's conscious attention, culminating in the dark moment, when the character stares the flaw in the face, then decides to face it down in the final showdown. The external goal that drives the Protagonist through the story should be specifically chosen to require the character to face their pivotal flaw. That is (to use a trivial example), if the Protagonist is afraid of heights, the external goal should require them to scale a sheer cliff or climb a tall building to achieve it.

In this way, Hawker uses character to drive her plot construction. She also uses Antagonists and Allies to add dimension to the Protagonist by showing character alternatives (Antagonist) or prodding the Protagonist in the right moment to understand and face their pivotal flaw (Allies). 

However, I think this approach to plot construction can go much, much deeper.

Let's think about character as superimposed on the three-act structure.

In Act One, we see the character in their Ordinary World. We all, in our everyday lives, have come up with ways to compensate for our weaknesses, often by leveraging our unique strengths. If someone is afraid of heights, but they're really good at music, maybe they've found a way to collaborate from their ranch-style one-story home to avoid ever having to visit the high-rise music label offices in LA. (Okay, bad example, but you get the idea.) This creates stasis or balance in their ordinary life. We all crave balance. This balance may leave the character content or yearning for more, but it is balance, nonetheless. Sure, there are weaknesses, but the character doesn't have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis because they've implemented all of these coping mechanisms.

It is this balance that will be threatened in Act One, in the Catalyst moment. From that moment forward, the character will try one thing after another to restore balance (the External Goal), starting first with easy solutions (all of which will fail, causing the decision to step into Act Two), then getting progressively harder until the character is forced to face their pivotal flaw (the Internal Goal) in the Dark Moment at the end of Act Two. 

Thus, in pursuing the external goal, the protagonist works through layer after layer of emotional defenses until they're left in the Dark Moment with their final choice: is this external goal important enough to force you to face your greatest weakness, which is often closely tied to your greatest fear?

By the Dark Moment, we should have learned the backstory that caused the fear and/or weakness, so that we understand the need to overcome it, and the difficulty in doing so. At this time, the external goal could still be abandoned by a protagonist desperate to avoid facing their fear ("Meh. I can just go dig ditches for a living. Music is boring, anyway."), but a new association, often a love interest, will have arisen that adds more stakes and impels the protagonist forward. ("I could dig ditches, but then I'll never get to see Harry from Sony Music again, and his office is on the 87th floor.") 

The character's strength often plays a key role in the Act Three solution, with the real power coming from the combination of that "external" strength and the newfound "internal" strength gained from mustering the courage and motivation to face their inner fear. At some basic level, I think all stories are about facing our fears. The Ordinary World was a jerry-rigged compensation. Through the process of Act Two, that fact becomes clear to the character. The process of Act Three strips away the jerry-rigging and attempts to construct a stronger, more authentic world. It can succeed or fail (though it usually succeeds), but, either way, the world to which the character returns is significantly different from the Ordinary World. It's a New World, built upon this one, fundamental change in the emotional core of the character.

Comparison of Story Structure Paradigms

I digested (to varying degrees) the various structural paradigms contained within the texts mentioned in the last post. It's clear that there are as many different approaches to story structure as there are writers making the approach. They all are valid interpretations, but, like the approaches to other aspects of writing about which you read in writing texts, while the tone of the book is authoritative, the approach is subjective. That is, whenever you read a book about writing, whether it's Stephen King's On Writing or Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car or John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells A Truth, or even tomes that look more like college textbooks, such as Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction (9th Ed.), what you're reading, more or less, is an approach that works for that particular author. Your mileage may vary.

That's the spirit with which I approached these materials.

Though I studied five texts and found five different models, I figured that whatever was common among them must be the core, the essence, the backbone of the skeleton of any great story.

I sketched out the paradigms outlined in each book and laid them side-by-side in a spreadsheet, one column for each paradigm, doing my best to line up the elements so that they coincided with similar elements from other paradigms, such that you could scan across a row and see which elements were found in multiple paradigms.

A screenshot of the result is below:


This is undoubtedly an imperfect result, but it will serve to get things moving.

You can see that the models don't line up perfectly. What is called Plot Point 2 in the Syd Field model coincides, I think, with the combination of All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, and Break into Three in the Blake Snyder model, and with Changed Goal, Ally Attacks, and, especially, Girding the Loins in the Libbie Hawker model. 

However, Girding the Loins could also coincide with Gathering the Team from the Blake Snyder model. And, according to Hawker, Changed Goal and Ally Attacks could occur earlier in the story, if the author so desires.

So, things get a little slippery when you try to pin this down too closely. But, what does seem to exist everywhere, in one form or another, is the following:

  1. Character exists in an Ordinary (for the character) World
  2. Something happens to disrupt that world (for the character)
  3. Character decides (usually forced) to act
  4. Various try-fail cycles, often with a key reversal or revelation at the midpoint
  5. The Dark Moment, when all seems lost, where the character decides to put it all on the line and make one last, complete attempt
  6. Final showdown
  7. Outcome

Different models give different amounts of information between different points on this list. For example, Blake Snyder and the screenwriting course give a lot of detail between steps 1-3, while the others don't. Libbie Hawker and Jack Bickham give a lot of detail in step 4, while the others don't. Blake Snyder is about the only one to give a significant amount of detail for step 6. I'm hoping I can use this variation to bridge these gaps later on.

Okay, for now, this is a decent skeleton. I can often watch a movie or read a book and intuitively sense when step 2 occurs, or step 5, or step 3. But, how do I invent these steps? How do I know what should happen in each step?

Libbie Hawker gives some good tips on this. It starts with a character.

Raw Materials: Plot

I know there are two schools of thought when it comes to approaching the blank page at the start of the novel: outlining and pantsing (ie. writing "by the seat of your pants"). I've tried pantsing in the past with short stories, and I've enjoyed it. It's really fun to just start typing and see where your mind takes you. In fact, for a while I used this approach for a morning writing practice I followed. I published the results in a book called Morning Wood. It's not great literature, but it's good for a laugh, and it highlights the fun that can be had with this approach.

However, for me, the thought of approaching a novel-length work in this way is too daunting. I can't hold all of the elements of a novel in my head at once (not yet, at least), so I feel like I would need a blueprint, a map of some kind to ensure that I don't lose my way. Otherwise, I'd end up with a blob of text that I would need to sift through to find the novel hidden within. Unfortunately, revising is not one of my strengths. And, since I'm a husband and a father and I work a demanding full-time job, I want a more efficient writing process right now. Given my skill level and my time demands, I need an outline.

Outlines center primarily on the plot and structure of the story. Character is crucial and interwoven, of course, but the outline I'm after would tell me what happens next, so that, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I'm doing and I can concentrate fully on writing an evocative scene as efficiently as possible.

Sadly, plot is also not one of my strengths.

There are any number of books to be had on the subject of plotting. I've read dozens over the years, but nothing has stuck. I have a vague sense of the Hero's Journey and the Seven-Point Plot Structure and the like, but I struggle to identify anything other than the main turning points in most stories, and I don't have a clue where to start when I'm inventing my own. I read constantly that writers have no shortage of ideas, and yet I don't know where to begin. For me, I feel like I could have a lot of ideas if I only knew what an idea looked like, and how to turn it into a story.

For that, I turned to several books. I chose these because they just happened to cross my path at the right moment in time. I could have chosen others. Others may work better for you.

There are a lot of screenwriting books in this list, simply because I find that screenwriting books generally present plot and story structure in a straightforward way. Screenwriting, I think, lacks the stigma against "formula" writing that fiction still seems to carry. It's an unnecessary stigma, for a solid structural foundation is no more a formula for cookie-cutter fiction than a human skeleton is a formula for cookie-cutter humans.

That said, here are the books I chose:

I'm not going to detail the contents of these books or materials here. Instead, I'm going to focus on the comparisons I made between them to arrive at a practical understanding of story structure that I could then use to create a useful story outline.

(By the way, the content links I post will be to the iBooks versions of these titles, whenever possible. Just because. But, of course, most of these titles are available anywhere.)

Hello, world!

I've wanted to be a novelist for over twenty years. I've made several attempts that could only be called half-hearted, at best. A bunch of aborted stories. One dreadful full-length manuscript that was embarrassingly derivative. Several rough drafts that even made it into the digital marketplace. But, none were true efforts. None had my body and soul in them. None had my blood, sweat, or tears.

Now, perhaps a little wiser, definitely quite a bit older, I'm trying again. 

I am at the age where I must admit that, statistically speaking, I have more life behind me than I have in front of me. Don't get me wrong. I fully intend to be a statistical aberration, the world's first two-hundred-year-old man. But, if I'm playing the averages, I'm on the downslope.

Being on the downslope means I'm picking up speed.

Picking up speed means... I'm running out of time.

Sure, there's always time. It's never too late to follow your dreams. I fully believe and support that. If we spend even just our last day on Earth following our dream, it will be a day well-spent.

But, I want more than that. I want time to enjoy the work, to enjoy the process, and, hopefully, to enjoy the fruits of that process. I have always dreamed of the freedom that writing brings, both externally and internally. Perfect world, odds stacked against, etc., but the dream has lasted this long, outliving a lot of other dreams. I've never really chased any of them.

Now is the time.

This blog will chronicle my progress toward that dream, step by step.

There goes the future.