Neither can live without the other – plot and characters

 In porotcovský blog

Have you waited for the third and last blog of this series? Here you are then! This blog is related to the Fantazia Award competition, but it’s aimed at any writers who seek some writing tips. I recommend you start with the first two before continuing with this one.

The last blog will be about 2 categories to which I gave the most points – plot and characters.

What is a plot?

A dictionary says that a plot is the main events of a story devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. If somebody asks you what a story was about, you will probably give them a short summary of the plot.

Some readers are happy with having a story where almost nothing happened or where the plot was full of holes. As long as the characters were great, or the general idea was appealing, or if the language was beautifully crafted. I’m definitely not one of those.

In a short story, a plot is usually centred around one experience or a significant moment. It is OK to create an appearance that it started from something bigger and that life goes on after it’s finished.

Take for example a Sherlock Holmes story. We know Sherlock lives with Watson, we know their life has some background. We also know the person who seeks Sherlock’s help had some life before coming to Baker Street and so did the victim. A short story is about the case and once resolved, it’s fine for Sherlock to keep on playing the violin.

Building a plot

There are many ways you can build a plot.

You can tell a story from various perspectives, mostly 1st POV or 3rd POV, less often 2nd POV. You can use different tenses, usually past or present. You can tell the events in the order that they happened (chronologic), but you don’t have to.

Most of the stories will have some beginning, something in the middle and some end. Traditionally, we recognize exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Not sure about you, but I’ve never found this particularly helpful. Then I’ve stumbled across so call “beats” and my life became so much easier.

Beats

Story beats are points of action that occur in a basic story. Each of the moments builds upon the next. If X happens, then Y happens, and because Y happens, Z happens…

There are MANY ways to split a plot into beats. Some systems use 5 beats (inciting incident, plot point 1, midpoint, plot point 2, climax). I’ve seen others with 10 points or with 15.

None of them is better or worse. They are all tools to help you break down the plot into smaller pieces that could work together.

Planning ahead or not? Doesn’t matter

You might say that you are not one of those writers who plan things in advance. You want to sit down, start writing and see where the story leads you. And that is fine.

You can either use these beats to plan your plot in advance or to revise your draft once it’s written. Don’t send your first draft to a competition. It’s never good. Some writers edit as they write. E.g., they edit a scene written the previous morning. Others start editing after the whole piece is written.

Good writing is not so much about writing. Good writing is about editing. And you can use the beats either for writing or for editing, or both, it doesn’t matter.

If you are serious about your writing, I recommend looking it up and finding one that gives you the most sense. Then give it a try.

Randomly connected events are not a plot

Stories in which events seemed to connect with no clear reason may be original and artistic. But may also be boring, confusing and uninteresting.

If a story has a 5-pages long introduction and then is all resolved on 1 page, that won’t work well.

If a story has two separate conflicts that aren’t connected at least at the end, you won’t please your reader either.

These are examples of what I call a poorly built plot.

It’s not easy to devise a really good plot.

But hey! Whoever told you that fiction writing is easy, was either exceptionally talented (exceptionally = exception to the rule) or was sarcastic.

Now that you know what I mean when I talk about a plot, let’s get to stories, in no particular order:

  1. This one was a bit experimental. I think it’s a bit risky to send an experiment to a competition. It may work, it may not. This one consisted of four separate stories. They were all nicely written. I am not a fan of long paragraphs and there were many of those. The piece gave me the impression the author knows what they’re doing with the words, dialogues and portrayal of emotions. But as the story consists of such snippets, there was no chance to develop characters or plot. Would be nice to connect throughout.
  2. The next story was enjoyable reading about secrets between men and women about their magical abilities. It had all the ingredients of a good story: emotions, dialogue, characters, plot… I liked the topic, the idea, the theme… Yet for some reason, I was quite frustrated with it and sometimes even bored. For a while, I couldn’t put my finger on why, but when I went back to the story to analyse it, I realized something. The main conflict, the looming danger, was introduced very late in the story. In some beat sheets, a „set-up“ is introducing the characters and setting. In this story, it sounded as if it took up at least half of it. It usually works better to create some trouble for the character (conflict) much earlier on. Tin this case maybe around page 2 or 3? That way we, readers, get hooked right away.
  3. This story was a sci-fi that reminded me of the new Andy Weir novel (Hail Mary). It started off really very, very well. I was quite excited about it. It had nice emotions, I liked the language, dialogues, the set-up… and then the plot fell apart. The author tried to squeeze into a short story and idea that would work better in a novel and realized it halfway through. The narration was excellent up to a point when events were crammed to fit the page limit. If you have an idea that could fill in 3 books, write 3 books. Some ideas are too short for a novel and some are too long for a short story.
  4. As I said, the key to good writing is editing. Some writers (myself included) need to edit with backspace and delete. Others need to shorten one bit and prolong another. This story wasn’t long, it had only 13 pages, but the first 8 pages were dragging. It was about a man trying to recreate his wife using a simulation. That was the main conflict for the character. The proverbial “what was it about”. Yet we’ve learned that on page 8 when we left one of the simulations. It didn’t work. There were some emotions, the language wasn’t bad. Dialogues were unnatural and the characters had a chance to shine only in the second half, so it seemed rushed.
  5. This one was one of my top two. It was a historical fantasy set in England of Henry I. It had a nice language use, emotions, characters, dialogues and an exquisite plot that was based on historical events. I enjoyed all 20 pages of it. It was brilliant. And I’m not sure what else to say.
  6. The next in this section was about a man who was wounded and some supernatural beings saved him as he was too important to die. I was very intrigued about it. Emotions were beautifully portrayed. Dialogues were nice (dialogue tags were sometimes unnecessarily full of adverbs). The characters were well portrayed. The plot was great up to the very end. I found the kissing scene a bit pathetic and, frankly, unnecessary. The last scene could use some big revelation. Something that would show him on the path toward the future seen by the supernatural beings.
  7. Another nice story, this one about a radio broadcaster and a mass murderer. Great dialogues and work with language. I particularly appreciated the use of dialects! The idea itself was really good. I liked how the emotions and characters were done. But the ending was needlessly rushed. The main revelation sounded unbelievable and full of plot holes. Likely because the ending was so rushed.

 

Last but definitely not least – characters

If a plot is “what” the story is about, a character is “who” the story is about. One can’t be without the other.

This is something that poorly written stories sometimes underestimate. If your plot/story would work just as well if you’ve replaced your main character with a sidekick, something isn’t right.

The wants and needs of your main character should drive the plot. At the same time, the plot should impact the character and their development.

What your characters want and what they need are the two most crucial questions you need to ask yourself. It’s far more important than what colour is their hair.

Based on that knowledge you may be able to build a character arc.

Again, there is a lot of material online that discusses character arcs in detail. You can even use pre-defined character spreadsheets that are online.

Character arc

Character arc is, basically, a character’s development. To simplify it, a plot is what happens on the “outside”, character arc is what happens on the “inside”.

Even if the story is short, there is still space for the character to grow or at least to realize something minor.

If a grumpy old man falls madly in love in 5 pages, it may not be very believable (without some magic). But you may reveal that the grumpy old man has been hopelessly in love the whole time, and hid it behind the grumpy façade. The plot may force the character to reveal the truth and in turn, the revelation will impact the plot. That’s how the two can get connected.

Desires, wants, and needs

Characters are driven by their desires, wants, needs, by their dreams and hopes. They are also usually not very insightful about themselves. If they were we’d have nothing to write about. It is often “how” they understood something that makes the plot worth reading.

The more you figure out about your character’s inner life before the story started the better. Focus on their background, a trauma they might have gone through, their believes, values and ideas.

But beware, you are not to spell it all out for the reader. Show it with the character’s actions. Remember “show, don’t tell”?

That’s another way how the plot and characters get intertwined.

You need to devise your plot in such a way that it will allow you to “show” the depth of your character. Once the characters do what you need them to do, they will influence the next point in your plot.

There’s much more theory that you can read about writing a compelling character. These are small hints for you to start, keywords to start Googling.

I’m sure you’re anxious about the last stories I got to mention in this blog, so let’s get to those:

  1. Another was a great story taking place in a warehouse. It was magical and I loved it. I really enjoyed the way it was narrated, the plot was very nicely crafted, it kept me on my toes up to the end. There were some parts where the writer relied a bit too much on the reader’s knowledge of mythology. But mostly it worked just well. The characters could use more work to make it a truly great story. Their motivations, needs and wishes weren’t always clear, especially for supporting characters. I think knowing them a bit better would steer the whole thing in the right direction
  2. The next story in my blog was about aliens coming to Earth to explore human sexuality. Very interesting idea and it started off well, as the aliens were questioning everything. Then it fell apart. To write a story with characters that aren’t humans isn’t easy unless we give them human traits. Like a talking book or a singing cup. Rethink the characters in much more depth. Think of the world they come from, their culture… Understand them before they first set foot o Earth. Then it might work better. Because of this lack of understanding of the characters, emotions, dialogues and plot also didn’t work well.
  3. This one is another of my top 2. It was about a power-play between gangs. Some of them had supernatural powers. And there was also some supernatural and important discovery. It was beautifully narrated from 1st POV with adequately informal language. The plot was great, I couldn’t stop reading. The main male character (the narrator) was very well characterised. The female protagonist was very sketchy. She was quite important, so it was disturbing contrast with how well the rest of the story worked. Give her more life and depth.
  4. Last but not least, as I gave it a lot of points was like a fairy tale or a legend set in ancient Egypt. It was beautifully written and I really loved the setting. It was magical, the atmosphere was nice, dialogues were enjoyable and believable. The plot reminded me of some ancient legend which seems intentional, so well done. The reason I have it in this section is that the characters were a bit sketchy. Yes, old legends and fairy tales rarely care much about deep character development. On the other hand, the most popular fairy tales have developed characters. I would appreciate it more if the characters in this story were given life outside the story.

 

Hello/goodbye my fellow writers

And that’s it. 31 stories, all categories I used for their assessment.

I hope this series of blogs were useful not only to the authors who sent their stories to the competitions but to others as well.

As I said many times, these are my subjective views and tips. I am certain that other readers will see things differently and would disagree with me on many things. And I’d disagree with them. That is perfectly normal. I don’t claim to own the truth.

Like I said in the first blog – your writing will never be loved by everyone. Deal with it. But I hope with these tips, which I hope somebody told me long ago, it will be easier to make it liked by more readers.

If you find them helpful, please do let me know. Hearing from you will be my reward. Thank you in advance.

 

Livia

 

P.S.: If you are interested to see how I was writing in the past or I’m writing now, see my webpage www.hlavackova.sk. My most recent English work is Tell Me My Fortune and my most recent Slovak work is Gwind 2 (the second part of the series).

If you want to support me some more, you can find Gwind in bookshops in Slovakia or you can let others know about the book.

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  • Susan Soleil
    Odpovedať

    I DO find your blogs very helpful! 🙂 V porovnaní s inými blogujúcimi porotcami si si dala skutočne ohromnú prácu. (Snáď si môžeme tykať.) Páči sa mi, že tvoje články sú informatívne, nie odsudzujúce a väčšina autorov si z nich zrejme dokáže odniesť niečo užitočné. Teraz, keď čítam tvoje hodnotenie, musím uznať, že v prípade mojej poviedky (č. 26) máš úplnú pravdu! Poukázanie na konkrétne veci, ktoré by sa dali vylepšiť/skrátiť/upraviť je pre autora oveľa užitočnejšie, ako keď niekto napíše len „bolo to nudné“, „nepáčil sa mi koniec“, „obyčajná téma“, atď. Škoda, že som nemala pred súťažou k dispozícii takého kompetentného beta-čitateľa, ako si ty. 🙂 Ďakujem za hodnotenie a energiu, ktorú si do blogov vložila!

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