Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Character / Plot Connection

I’ll tie this all together at the end, so stay with me . . .

I want to begin with a story about growing up with my 10-year old brother Ray and his Hot Wheels tracks.

Ray loved Hot Wheels from the moment he first saw them. If you don’t remember, Hot Wheels was a system of cool replica cars and these road segments that you could configure all-which- ways to make more and more elaborate tracks. Click here to see them in all their glory.

Ray started out with just one set but kept adding more and more parts. He collected all the tracks from several different kits, borrowed pieces from his friends and went on to build more and more elaborates stunt track formations – loops, 90, 180, 270 degree turns. Twists and jumps. At some point, he went beyond the guidelines of the toy manufacturers and created lay-outs that no one had thought of.

Sometimes the cars would make it through to the end and he’d get so excited. Sometimes the cars flew off the track – maybe they were going too fast, or the turn was too steep and the car couldn’t handle – but he kept pushing the cars to do the most elaborate and interesting tricks.

The All-Important Test

And the way he tested these configurations was very simple. He had very basic criteria
  • Did they make it to the end of the track?
    Did the cars perform the way he wanted?
    Was it exciting?
He pushed himself to make more unique and death-defying configurations. But the test was always the same. Could the car perform? Could the car make it all the way to the end, instead of spinning off of one of the loops or turns?

He spent hours designing configurations and then choosing just the right car for each.

Remember that.

The Truth about Plot

So – What is the true definition of a plot?

It is the mechanism by which the truth and humanity of a given character is delivered to the audience.

And, in the argument of what is more important – Character or Plot – I believe that character wins every time.


Because there are only a limited number of master plots and an assortment of variations;

But there are an infinite number of unique characters!

Each – both plot and character – are vitally necessary to the process of storytelling.

The Job of the Audience

And what is the difference between a plot (that just relates a series of events) and a story that is compelling to an audience?

It’s Audience Engagement.

And the storyteller’s purpose? – to keep the audience doing their job – which is, staying engaged in the story.

Engagement means that the audience must be made to work for their supper.

Because a good story is not meant to be like syrup poured over pancakes – giving all the elements PRE-CHEWED to the reader or viewer. A good story is not something that HAPPENS to the audience.

The audience, in order to stay engaged, must be constantly longing to find out what happens next. So long as that’s going on, the story is working; you have them just where you want them.

And, more importantly, the Audience is just where THEY want (and need) to be.

You as the Imagineer!

Imagine a story like a roller coaster and you’re the designer.

Your job is to create the RIDE. Everything is under your control.

You decide everything: the length of the ride, the timing, length and details of every twists and turns, rise and drop.

Everything they will see, hear, think and feel is completely under your control

Don’t think for a moment that Space Mountain at Disneyland – or any other roller coaster you’ve ever been on – is about anything other than the drama of the moment and the rider’s emotional reaction to it.

The rider enjoys it because the designers did their job well.

It’s exactly the same with story.

To Wrap this Whole Thing up . . .

Let’s return to the story on my brother and his Hot Wheels.

Ray worked to get the most out of each part of his equipment. He pushed the limits of the track to get the best out of the cars. And he pushed the cars to get the best out of the track.

This is exactly how I see writers and their plots in the best stories. 

This is the nature of the all-important Character/Plot Connection

A Story is about the WHOLE of what you create.

The plot is how we put the characters through their paces, show the extent of what they can do.

But it is through our characters that we illustrate to the world the truth and humanity of our lives.

Your stories are ultimately judged by the success of this interplay.

Because, as my young brother knew, you build the track to race the cars and you race the cars so that the crowds in the stands can feel the thrill.

It is as simple as that.

Goodnight, Ray . .

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Fragments of Once Whole Things

“The beautiful thing about a mosaic is that it is best when made up of the broken fragments of once whole things.”

Your characters are very much like that. Whether we want admit it or not, each of our characters is such a mosaic, made up of those conscious pieces we assemble and those unconscious fragments that we bring to the work.  And how could it be anything else? We are always the real source of all the tools and raw materials for our stories. We bring each character to our stories like a comet, seeing only the fiery tail, but knowing that it is the unseen – the fireball of our imagination and experiences – that is the real cause of that streak in the sky.
But how do we access that?  How can we really get in touch with what we believe?  How can we come to know ourselves?
One way is to look at our writings for quotes from our characters.  Their words are our words too, especially when they seem to disagree with who we think we are, or when they say something unwittingly profound.
If we believe that someday people will be quoting lines from our own works, why not beat them to it, and see what you can learn about yourself.
Let me serve as an example:  In preparing this post, I combed through my personal writing for quotes by my characters that, while seeming natural when I wrote them, now seem to reveal something new about how I might actually feel.
Here are a couple of examples:
From F8 – A Shade Story:
“Circumstances are revealed in the crime; character, in the cover-up.”
“The defining moments in the history of Mankind lie not in what a person CAN do, but in what a person Will or Will Not do.”
“A slap is just a very fast, very hard caress.”

From A Siren of Turbine
“Life is collaboration with victims.
“Beneath every desert, at some reachable depth, lies a spring.”
“Your wounds are like the knives you carry. There’s the one that you’ll show them, the one that you’ll let them find and the one they’ll never know you have.”

From Perfecting Your Premise:
“There has to be a High Country in every story where the derring-do is done.”
“Plot only matters when it is the means to transformation.”
“Every character has that one core value – that one unshakable belief – that is their impediment to growth.”

Through this second look, I found deeper meaning in these quotes than what they meant for the story. Why not pull some out of your own writing and give them a second look. And feel free to share them with us here through the Comment section.
You might just learn something new.

NEXT TIME:  More about our new seminar series for 2017!