Friday, October 14, 2011
How To Plot Like a Four-Year-Old with Guest Blogger Jason Black
Hello Seekerville, and special thanks to Tina for inviting me today. My name is Jason Black, and I'm a book doctor. A what? Yes, I get that question a lot. You can read all about it on my website, but in short I write book reports for a living--really long and intensely technical book reports. And if you'd have asked me when I was twelve if I'd ever enjoy writing book reports so much that I'd do that for a career, I'd have looked at you like you were nuts. Funny how life works sometimes.
When Tina first approached me about guest blogging here, she said she was looking for people who can teach the community something useful. I'm going to talk about plot motivation versus character motivation, not only because I see problems with this in my clients' manuscripts all the time, but also because the result of this particular mistake usually sabotages the whole story.
Plot motivation is when a writer has a character make a particular choice or take a particular action because it's necessary for the direction the writer wants the plot to go. Character motivation is when a writer has a character make a particular choice or take a particular action because it's what makes the most sense given the situation the character is in and that character's state of mind.
Phrased like that, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that readers prefer the latter.
Yet, I constantly see writers mess this up. I'm constantly encountering places in manuscripts where I can see a character doing something that just doesn't feel right, and when I stop to think about why, I can see that it's because of what the writer want to have happen next, or in a few pages, or at the climax.
Sometimes I'll see a character make some choice that would make sense if the character had perfect knowledge of what everyone else in the story was up to, except of course they don't. The writer does, but the character doesn't. The character ends up seeming like some kind of Forrest Gump-ish savant, always doing the smart thing by luck or happenstance more than by design. Usually this is not what an author wants.
More often, I'll see characters do things that aren't consistent with the character's stated knowledge, beliefs, and goals. For example: suppose the author has made it clear that the Most Important Thing this character needs to do is get to the crashed satellite in the desert to recover the surveillance photos/secret technology/phlebonium before the Russians/Chinese/Al Qaeda does. Good stakes plus time pressure. Nice. Character motivation means showing this protagonist race to Langley Air Force Base, commandeer a military fighter-jet, and race at Mach 2 to Nellis AFB in Nevada. Plot motivation is showing the character, as he passes through Las Vegas on the way to the crash site, stopping at a casino for a casual dinner and some casual slot-machine action, then taking up with an attractive casino hostess and hanging out with her for a couple of days because the author wants the story to have a romance sub-plot. And possibly also because the author knows he messed up the story's timeline and needs to give the antagonists an extra couple of days to get to Nevada so there can be a climactic show-down at the crash site.
But most often of all, I see plot motivation when characters make choices and take actions that aren't consistent with normal human emotional reactions to earlier events. The classic example (and you'll see this in action movies all the flippin' time) is when a supposedly important character dies, but the remaining characters show no particular emotional reaction to that death. The surviving character's childhood best friend/love interest/beloved professor has just been eliminated--usually by the antagonists, because of course that heightens the underlying conflict--but the character continues on through the plot as though nothing has happened.
Death is an extreme and illustrative example, but the plot-motivation problem I see in emotional response is actually a failure to recognize that the Kubler-Ross "five stages of grief" model (which I've written about extensively on my blog) applies to virtually any kind of surprise a character experiences in a novel. It doesn't matter if the surprise is big or small, the five stage model still applies, although the scale of the response should be proportional to the gravity of the surprise. By not understanding this, writers naturally don't think to show the characters going through those stages. But the result from the reader's perspective is that the character has jumped straight from the surprising incident directly to the final acceptance stage, entirely bypassing denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.
Writing a novel is, fundamentally, a deeply empathetic act. You as writer must fully empathize with all of your characters, all of the time. At each moment in your novel, whether it's an intimate love scene or a high-drama action sequence, you need to find the most natural choices and actions for each character to take. You must be able to turn a dial in your mind and become that character, subsuming for the moment that character's full set of beliefs, their mood, and everything that makes up the character's personality, in order to determine what that character would do in that moment.
This is not easy.
The best advice I can give you for how to do it is to take a cue from your kids. My daughter is four, and she is smack in the middle of the "why" phase. She must obsessively ask why and how everything is the way it is. I can't do anything, or tell her anything--no matter how simple it might seem--without her questioning it. Why, Daddy? Why?
I keep reminding me that it's a healthy skepticism that will serve her well later in life, no matter how much it drives me up the wall sometimes.
The lesson for writers is to be that four-year-old. If you're about to have a character make a meaningful choice or take a significant action, ask yourself "why is she doing this?" If your answer has anything at all to do with the plot, it's the wrong answer. After all, the characters are ostensibly unaware of plot; real people don't go around thinking about the plots of our lives, we just live the events as we come to them. If your answer is anything like "because if she goes to this Starbucks instead of her normal one, she'll meet the cute boy barista and then the story's love triangle can start," try again. Your answer should always be something that boils down to "because this is the most natural, most sensible thing for her to do in this situation."
It may sound like I'm advocating letting the characters take the story wherever they want to. Not so. Sure, that works for some writers, but there's nothing at all wrong with wanting the plot to go in a certain way. The trick is to align the answers. The trick is to arrange things so that "the thing I want the character to do right now" is identical to "the most natural, sensible thing for her to do right now."
That's how you establish and maintain character motivation. And if you're having trouble training yourself to do it, just let yourself be four years old again. Make yourself justify all those choices and actions in character-motivated terms. Don't let yourself get away with anything. Always ask "why would this character do this now? What circumstances would lead this character to make that choice?"
Your job is to pre-emptively ask and answer that question, because it's the one question readers are always asking. In this, readers are exactly like my daughter. Why did she do that, Daddy? Why? When a writer has properly supported the character's choice--that is, when you've aligned your plot desires with the character's internal motivations--readers answer this question for themselves without even thinking about it. The character's choice just feels right. It's natural, and all is well.
But the instant you force a character to something solely for your preconceived notions about the plot, the reader won't be able to answer that question. The ever-present but usually invisible "why did she do that?" will jump straight to the forefront of the reader's mind. It'll stick there, nagging like a raspberry seed jammed between two molars, stubbornly refusing to be dislodged. At that moment, you've broken the reality of your story because your character's behavior doesn't match what we already believe to be true about that character. You've pulled the reader out of the story and have made them remember, in a sudden and jarring fashion, that this character is not a real person after all. You've let slip the curtain, revealing the character as a marionette jumping to the puppeteer's inexperienced commands.
Plot motivation. It's the surest and quickest way I know to spoil the believability of your characters, and with it, the whole book.
Thanks again to Tina and everyone at Seekerville for inviting me to guest-post. I always enjoy the chance to interact with a new community of writers, and will be following comments throughout the day. I love to brainstorm answers to those four year old questions, so by all means post your scenarios down in the comments and we'll work through them.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who reads, analyzes, critiques, and edits an average of two million words of his clients’ fiction every year. Jason is the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s “Book Doctor in Residence”, in which capacity he presents writing workshops to PNWA members and consults with members on their projects. He appears as a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference and at monthly PNWA member meetings. Jason writes a monthly column on techniques for character development in fiction for Author Magazine (authormagazine.org), and writes the Storycrafting column for the literary journal Line Zero (linezero.org) as well. He is an occasional guest-lecturer to fiction writing students in the University of Washington’s continuing education program. You can read more about Jason on his website Plot to Punctuation.
In honor of Jason's visit today, and his four year daughter old AND to further celebrate our fourth birthday, Seekerville is giving away a $10 Amazon gift card to one reader, and for one writer-their book of choice from any of the six books listed on Jason's Writing Resources page. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
Remember any comment today puts your name in the randomizer for the monthly birthday present and the weekly birthday present. Check those out here.