7.18.2009

What's Driving Your Story?

Plot is overrated. Yeah, I said it. And I know you're gnashing your teeth, and I can hear all sorts of "buts" flying out there with perfectly good explanations tacked to them as to why plot-driven stories are not a bad thing. So let me explain before things start getting violent and I end up impaled by a pitchfork and burned at the stake. I'm going to do this via metaphor. All stories require a plot. If your story is a car, then something has to get it from Point A to Point B, or it's just sitting there looking like a car with nothing to do. Boring, right? The problem is, most people think the plot is the engine of the car. I disagree that this should be the case. In fact, I don't think the plot should even really be under the hood at all. Or even part of the car. Let's instead make the plot the road. You need a road to drive a car on. You can't get far without a good one. And an interesting road has all sorts of fun twists, turns, and obstacles. But the road doesn't give a car its power. Along with the tires, the road provides traction and together they get the car to its destination. But you may be asking, what's going to propel my story? I always learned in high school writing class that plots provide movement! I saw the graphs! Rising action, falling action, climax, and resolution! See, like this! Let me say that graphs like this make me want to punch people. And hard. But to answer the question, you the author are the ultimate power source for your story vehicle, and it's your imagination that's in the gas tank and lubricating the pistons. And just so we can avoid getting too technical (I really don't have time to metaphorize the radiator, distributor, or the exhaust manifold), let's just stick with the major parts of the car, shall we?

So you may be wondering who is behind the wheel. That should be obvious. Your characters. They are going to navigate along the plot, which rests comfortably beneath the car with no other real role other than to help it move (at a pace, speed, and direction determined by the character's needs and not your own, mind you), and give it a place to go. Your characters may be erratic drivers, or they may be Formula 1 racers. They may be Driving Miss Daisy. But either way, it is their ride. Oh sure, the road will provide many obstacles and conflicts. But in a character-driven story, they may get to a rough spot and overcome it in a completely different way than a reader may anticipate. The character is the one who decides, for better or worse, to bypass a particularly nasty section of road by taking an alternate route, because the character is driving the car and knows what's best. Not the road.

You the author are simply providing the power and the imagination they need to make those decisions and reach the end. This may result in a story that doesn't read "by the numbers." It may have a funny, sad, or unconventional ending. It may not fall into any trusty template or formula you can think of. And that's OKAY! That's what makes your story different from all the others. People always remember good characters. And they're going to want to see more of them. And they are going to be sad if that character dies. And they're going to occasionally be frustrated by that character because he or she isn't driving in such a way as required by the plot. It's not always going to be fast enough and you'll howl over a lack of instant gratification! This drives some people absolutely batty. Have you ever been to a message board for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series? Yikes. So in that regard, you may argue that it should be you behind the wheel. After all, it's "your" story, by gum.

 If you are going to think that way, then you are probably a plot-driven kind of writer. You require structure and control. Your characters are somewhere out there, but that doesn't matter as much, because it's really all about you. You may not think this is so, but really it is. Maybe your characters are just the hood ornament. You can see them out there, but you and the plot are directing them and they have no independent function of their own. You have an appointment to keep; you have a point to make! You don't have time to be creative! You wanna get published yesterday!

 And of course, when you get there, no one's going remember the hood ornament, but they're going to remember all the crazy driving you did. This is not always a bad thing or a wrong thing, of course. If ever there was a genre more controlled by plot, it's the Mystery. But I can tell you one thing. Most people don't buy cars for the hood ornaments. And they don't usually buy or remember stories for their plots. But they will always buy stories (the good ones) for their characters. Even good mystery writers have great and complex characters. If a reader cannot relate to a character, regardless of what kind of journey he or she is on, then in many cases you've lost that reader.

 I know it's a movie, but take Star Wars as a prime example. Do you believe that Episodes IV-VI would have been anything without the strength of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader? Of course not. Do normally even really remember what the exact plot of Star Wars was? No matter how many times you've seen it, you could probably say: "Rebels fight Evil Empire with light sabers" and that's really all you NEED to know. Who cares about all the political minutia? If I wanted that, I'd go watch Star Trek or read a Tom Clancy novel. We just want to see Luke kick butt with his light saber and Han give that crooked grin and say something shallow. As long as we have "our guys," the plot is really quite secondary.

You could put the Star Wars vehicle on almost any good road, and so long as those characters are behind the wheel, they could take us anywhere and we would enjoy it. Enter the general failure of the prequels, which showcased a dull plot and flashy special effects in the place of meaningful characters. Most people wrinkled their noses at The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, and for good reason. The characters sucked. They were at the mercy of George Lucas trying to answer one ultimate question: "How did Darth Vader come to be?" Sadly, this was a question answered through the plot, not through truth of character.

But let's use a book as an example. Let's take Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Wildly popular and successful, let's make no doubt about it. But do you think any of that success is attributable to Dan Brown's actual stories? Or is it more due to the fact that he gave the Catholic church a giant wet willy with buttloads of research, spouted by Robert Langdon, a thin avatar of a character whose only purpose was to advance a weak murder and conspiracy plot any sixth grader could dream up?

Dan Brown is a very rare breed. A poor writer with a very commercially viable idea and a penchant for selling his research as nonfiction covered with a thin veneer of plot-driven fiction. People are generally not buying the veneer when they buy his books. They're buying the research, because let's face it: even his crappy stories are a more interesting read than most of the dry texts on which they are based. It's a successful marketing campaign, but it's a bad story. My opinion, to be sure, but I stand by it 1000%.

 But even the best character-driven vehicles will fall into plot-driven scenes, and it's usually near the ending. No single book is all of one thing and none of another. Even one of the better stories out there, Harry Potter and the Fill in the Blank, falls victim to occasional plot devices, but that's okay, because we really just want to see Harry succeed. There is enough character there to make up for any convenience items Rowling uses to move them along the road. I never said plot devices should never be used, but I don't think they should drive a story.

Sometimes an author will want to use a character to make a choice strictly because it is part of the formula. The "script" demands it and the character has to act in such a way that is completely outside his or her personality in order to fulfill the author's need to act safely within the confines of some arbitrary plot structure. Example: You have two people who, for no other reason than it's required to build tension, have a "giant misunderstanding" that in real life would be resolved with the utterance of a few simple words. This drives a wedge between them that is only fixed at the end when entire mountains have to be moved in order to make things right. Or you have the character who does something willfully ignorant, like walks up the stairs in a dark and creepy house, just so she can die at the hands of a psychotic killer. There is a reason it's called the "Idiot Plot Device." Your characters have to be idiots on purpose in order to fulfill the demands of a formulaic plot. It's a trope used in every genre of story, every soap opera and television drama ever made, and the majority of movies too. Literary examples include (in some form): Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and countless others. This very lazy technique makes your story weak, predictable, and trite. People have been subjected to this formula ad nauseum for centuries. And it isn't because readers demand it. It's usually because authors don't think they have any other choice. It's what's always been done, so why not keep doing it?

Writers often feel so confined by tradition and the successes of their peers, that it hems their creativity. It says something when people encounter a story that doesn't use this device and it receives such rave reviews. Because it dared to do something different for once. The story's characters determined the outcome of the plot and not the other way around.

And then we have the most famous plot device ever invented. Used since the days of Euripides, it continues to violate our good sensibilities to this day: Deus ex Machina. The God from the Machine. A lost writer's Ace in the Hole. Can't think of a clever way for your characters to get out of the jam they're in? Why, let's just make a giant rock fall from the sky and kill the the enemy! Oh, I know! Maybe the invading aliens are allergic to water! Or the virus that is killing humanity is suddenly wiped out by a freak genetic mutation! The End! Rejoice! Or better yet, let's just make it all a dream! It never happened in the first place!

There is also the Death Trap, whereby a death scene is made so elaborate, with a killer so talkative, that the hero has no choice but to escape. And let us not forget the "I love you, but I'm going to act like I hate you because the plot says I have to until the end, at which point I'm going to admit my love for you and we're going to live happily ever after" device. This happens so often in romantic comedies nowadays that you really don't ever have to watch them to know how they end.

Occasionally you will get a love story like Sleepless in Seattle or The Time Traveler's Wife, but they are so rare that you would have better luck mining for diamonds in dog feces. The plot continues to rule all, and our insecurities as writers and readers are momentarily salved by the application of The Formula.

So to sum this up:

1. Plots are necessary to move a story, but they shouldn't be the primary power source. Plot and character should be a symbiosis, one influencing the other in such a way as you can't see the any gears turning. If your characters are not making decisions unless you're throwing curve balls at them. If your character only exists at your convenience, or if the character doesn't even need to be in a scene other than you need to prove an overall point, or if your hero can only get out of a situation because you're using a Death Trap or a Deus ex Machina to resolve it, chances are your story is ruled mostly by plot. This may not always be "wrong," but I think it should warrant the question of whether or not your characters are suffering for it. It's more natural, less predictable, and more effective if a character resolves a conflict more internally rather than through the use of a formula.

2. There is nothing wrong with daring to do things differently. Whatever you do, tell the TRUTH. The truth can really only be determined by your characters. If you tell the truth about what they see, how they act, and what they do, then you will almost always have a more effective, more visceral story. If you don't tell the truth, you'll piss off your readers and sell yourself short as a writer.

3. No, not all plot-driven stories are bad. But most really bad stories are plot-driven (The Da Vinci Code) or they have no plot at all (Twilight). The key is finding the right balance. I believe this is best achieved by handing your story to your characters, letting them take the wheel, and letting them lead you. Overall, don't be lazy with your technique. Get your boots muddy and dare to blaze a new trail.

1 comment:

  1. You know how I feel about this.

    Which is, "amen, sistah!"

    ReplyDelete