Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to be a Good Writer, Part 7: Plot and Characters

For the rest of the week I want to feature plot as a theme. I’ve posted other things about this subject (Archetypes), and that’s because it bears study. A good writer is one who understands at least the basic elements of plot. For me, plot = characters in a lot of ways. But first, plot.

A good story has a skeleton in good order. If you break out the major events in any well-written story, you can build an outline around them. Sometimes we get a look at it in disjunct ways, a la LOST or The Prestige, which are great stories that keep us guessing—but they’re organized quite well in the final analysis. In other words, whatever happens in the storyline has a reason for happening (the fictional past) and a consequence as well (the fictional future). That’s what I mean by a skeleton in good order.

Good stories have certain elements that are universal, too. It’s been that way since the dawn of time. If a crowd can relate to part of the story, they buy in. And if it’s a book, they buy it. That’s the goal here, folks, and it doesn’t require selling out or ignoring/forgetting your principles. Contrary to popular belief.

Take a look at any Sherlock Holmes story. I still stand in awe of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s knack for this. I always wonder which part of the story he wrote first; as if he wrote it inside out and backwards, because how can anyone do that?! It's crazy good writing, with lots of layers, lots of interdependencies; like a combination lock on a safe.

A good plot has lots of layers, interdependent interactions between the characters and the story—because really, the characters are the story. And ideally, as we read, we shouldn’t be able to notice the plot happening. It should feel just like life; like we’re voyeuristically observing the characters moving through their virtual world. In other words, a good plot shouldn’t be noticeably fictional. You’ve gotta have real and believable characters. In other words, they’re flawed. They have issues. And those issues, which go hand-in-hand with a good plot, are compounded by the issues that are created by that plot.

Bills are hard to pay in real life, for example. People get divorced and their kids pay the price in one way or another for the rest of their lives. Parents raise kids that become psychopathic in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. Young people get shipped off to combat and come back changed. If they come back. Accidents happen. Factions within families grow like a malignancy. And still the world turns. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to have some unexplainable time travel event or some impossible meteor hurtling toward earth in order to write a good story, or even tell one. You just need something for the reader to hold onto. And arguably, the closer to home it hits (depending upon a lot of other variables) the more books you’ll sell. And that's the goal, if you're making a living as a writer. Ironically, the more successful you become, there's a danger of being more insulated from good material for inspiration.

I think that’s one reason why some writers at the beginning of their careers can produce better work than those who are a commercial success: they draw from real poignant conflicts, through which they have had to live. that's not to say Stephen King is an idiot. But Jane Austen was never "discovered" in her lifetime, and her work is delicious as a result. Real people live real lives that are marked and shaped by conflict, and they will be more apt to enjoy reading stories that have an air of familiarity, even if the setting is exotic or fantastic. We all want fiction to feel like the truth at its deepest levels. Remember V for Vendetta, where we heard the line, "writers use lies to tell the truth." Fabulous.

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