Monday, January 28, 2013

Characters and Plot in Parallel

How many lines do you see?
I'm always looking for ways to express what I'm thinking about how I write, why I write and why and how I think things work. Not having a degree in English or Writing or Creative Writing, my search is exclusively independent, wandering far afield from one thing to another. I rely on the advice of others (that's the subject of another blog post another time) and the experience of writing for any audience that'll pay attention. (And thank you for reading here. I very much appreciate it.)

Back in March of 2012 I took a stab at explaining why character wasn't more important than plot and vice versa. Rereading that post at the Confabulator Cafe, I realize that I've learned a little more since then and it may be time to update my thoughts. Not the roots of the thought, mind you, but maybe I've come up with an explanation that may make a little more sense.

I read Austin Kleon's book Steal Like An Artist (three times) and he illustrates something in the book that really, really resonated with me. An art school exercise where you draw two lines close together, pretty much as identically as possible. The student is then asked how many lines he sees.

The answer is supposed to be three: the two drawn and the one implied in between.

Now my idea is that the three lines symbolize the bits that readers care about: Character, Plot, and Story. Here:


It's not necessary for character to be on top or plot to be on the bottom but story has to be in the center. Nor should you pay attention to the sizes I've written any of the words in the drawing. The important bit is that Story is in the center. What I'm aiming at is that Character on the outside represents all the work an author puts into developing those people. Same thing with Plot. The implied line is, of course, Story. Because Character and Plot combine to make a Story.  A believable story has strong characters and a good plot that moves forward with purpose. I think we can pretty much agree on that, can't we?

So. I'm going make an amendment at this point that ties together all the things I've been exploring over the last little while here. When I say 'story' in this regard, I mean the throughline of my story. A then B then C, etc... What makes a story memorable is how the reader retains it.

Stay with me. Obviously they read it one page after another, sometimes skimming over the boring bits. Hopefully I've eliminated as many of those parts as possible but maybe not. We'll see. Anyway.

When you tell a story to someone (like a prank you pulled, for instance, or when you're gossiping or even lying or sharing a deep dark secret) you don't necessarily go with the throughline, do you? I bet not. I bet you digress here and there to explain some details - who was there and their relationship to you or the event, what was going on right before the story started or where it happened - sometimes as you go along and sometimes not. Here's a diagram of how I think that works:

Again, maybe I'm right maybe I'm not. This is how I'm thinking of it now. Which is why I'm sharing it. Anyway. You can flip the S-curve either way for the reader/listener to come in on the character side or the plot side and it still works. During every story, there are plot moments and character moments as the tale drives forward. I think a good story has equal amounts of both but you can modify the curve any way you like.

This is anecdotal evidence on my part, from listening to stories, reading them, and telling them. Your mileage probably varies. But this is how I write. I want characters interacting across a cool plot that makes for an entertaining story. When readers tell others about a story I've written I would bet that they'll share bits about the characters and bits about the plot that actually tell the story.

At least, that's the theory.