Things I Always Forget When I'm Plotting

I seem to always get stuck in the same places when I'm plotting. I'm good at figuring out my world and my set pieces, who fights whom, and who wins. But I often get stuck on the why. Why does any of this matter?

At the recommendation of Susan Quinn and others, I've been reading this book by Peter Dunne called Emotional Structure. And while Dunne exudes some arrogance, and crushes my geekery like so much broken glass,* he did remind me of some very important things to cover when plotting.

* He knocked down The Terminator because Arny's character never worried about the families of all the people he killed (Hi, um... Arny's a ROBOT . His amorality is kind of the point). He also said Superman lived in Gotham City, at which point I nearly threw the book away.

Yes, I know how childish that is. Shut up.

What does the protagonist WANT?
Without a goal, the novel is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, and nobody wants that.

What is the protagonist AFRAID OF?
Not like "spiders" or "heights" or "face-huggers." I mean, what is their deep secret that must not be exposed?

Of course, once you know these two, it's easy to play them against each other. Hiccup wants to learn the truth about dragons, but he's afraid his father will be ashamed of him. Po wants to learn kung fu, but he's afraid he doesn't have what it takes. Flint wants the town to like him, but he's afraid he's a failure as an inventor.

Those are simplifications, but you get the idea.

What does the character HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT THEMSELVES in order to overcome their fears and get what they want?
And this is the key, the one I always forget. Dunne makes an important distinction between plot (what happens) and story (the emotional context behind what happens). This is the MC's character arc.

When we talk about formulas like the hero's journey, we talk about the obstacles the protagonist fails against. But these aren't obstacles like 4 random skeletons. I mean, they could be, but only if those skeletons expose the MC's greatest fear at the same time.

See, when the MC fails, it's not because they lose a fight or get captured. It's because their weakness -- the thing they are most afraid of having exposed -- is what caused them to lose. Hiccup fails to tell his father the truth about his dragon. Po fails at every training exercise his master puts him through. Flint fails to turn his invention off before it destroys the town.

Until finally these failures lead to the climax, where things are as bad as they can get because of the MC's fears. And now the MC has to overcome their fear to make things right again.

Not that every story has this same formula, but it's one that works really well for me. How about you? What do you think?


Matthew MacNish said...

I'm still learning about all of this. I mean, I've always considered these concepts when I'm outlining a plot, but it's a lot harder to actually execute them on the page properly.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yes, Dunne, is a kind of the free-floating, don't-bog-me-down-with-facts type. :) But the book had brilliance in it, so thank you for reminding me about it!! I need to look over it again before I start outlining Mindjack#3 (or rather, re-outlining, since I did that, but now I have to do it AGAIN. Er, for the third time).

MattyDub said...

This sounds like interesting reading, but if the author really is a "don't-bog-me-down-with-the-facts type", as Ms. Quinn so elegantly put it, then I'm not sure how much I could trust the author. If an author doesn't take the time to get facts right, will they have taken the time to get anything right?

Side note, Adam: I've been meaning to write you about How to Train a Dragon, because we bought it recently and it's been in heavy rotation around here. And I just love it, and wanted to geek out with you about it. So I was very happy to see you refer to it!

sally said...

I'm sorry but putting Superman in Gotham City would make me disregard anything else the man said.

I agree we need to look at the inner conflict, though. It's vital.

Steve MC said...

What Sally said. Mistakes like that destroy the author's authorial authority - or whatever that's called.

And thanks for the reminder of how the outer action has to echo the inner growth - got some thinking to do on that.

Here's what it reminded me of - I recently saw "The Order of the Pheonix," and at the end of that, in the battle with Mr. V, Harry realizes he's not so much like him (his fear, which worked against him), but very different in that he's loved and can love. That's the emotional climax of the film, and without it, if it was just all wizard stuff, the battle wouldn't have anywhere near the same effect.

Angela Brown said...

I was waiting for you to add a second set of asterisks to say that Dunne was just kidding about putting Superman in Gotham City but I didn't see it so it sort of made me tune out his relation to what you wrote.

Now, I like what you mentioned. This is part of craft that is an ever-learning-experience for me.

I also had to laugh at the fact that I immediately knew exactly what movies you referenced just with the MC name (How to Train your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

Myrna Foster said...

You have great taste in animated films. How to Train Your Dragon is probably my all time fav.

I have is an exercise where you ask your characters (mainly your protagonist and antagonist) a group of questions and then find the themes in your story from the answers. If you're interested, I could e-mail you the questions. I think you know your characters well enough that it would work for you at this point.

I like the formula, but I would have put the book down and not picked it up again. Arrogance combined with ignorance is really hard for me to overlook.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I just... i mean... how the hell could he think Superman lived in Gotham City? And why didn't his editor or someone else catch that?
And yes, the other stuff was good. I just can't get over that breach of nerd etiquette. Seriously, do a two second google search, dude! Research completed.

E. M. LaBonte said...

Yeah, I got caught with that whole concept for a while. Gotham City... Really?

E. M. LaBonte said...

This is such a great post. Bookmarking. The character arc has always been a bit troublesome for me. Not sure I could read Dunne's book, based off of what you've said about the book. (That would bother me to no end) I am however, going to be looking over what I wrote to make sure my plot has story. Thanks for the great post. :D

Deniz Bevan said...

Oh, yes. I'm printing this one for the writing tips binder.