Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Plot as Character

A writer should know her weaknesses as well as her strengths. My weaknesses are plot and description; my strength is characterization. I've been making a real effort to improve my descriptions over the past year, but plot defeats me.

Why do some stories' plots seem so organic and work so well, while others fall so flat? And why is it only my short stories that have plot problems, never novels?

It was that realization this week, that my novels' plots always work no matter how little planning I put into them*, that led me to a thunderous realization. Probably this is not new to anyone else, but I'm stunned. It explains not only my plot problems but my dislike of writing short stories.

Plot is character. It isn't something separate from the other story elements, like the road under a traveler's feet. The plot is the feet.

The main character's desires, fears, pressures, dreams, and beliefs shape the plot. If the story's events don't follow, logically and directly, from the main character, the plot doesn't work. And it often makes the character fail too.

Take, for instance, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy's caught up in an event out of her control--the tornado--but it's a direct result of her being outside to rescue Toto. Her concern for Toto, and then for her aunt and uncle, shape both her character and the plot. The plot is advanced by her desire to return home, a desire so strong that she braves all the scary things that happen as a result. Because she's warm-hearted, she rescues and befriends several other characters and they join her, and at that point the plot is further influenced by those characters' needs and wants, as well as by Dorothy's added concerns for her new friends. And so on.

It's organic. It's a whole. Change the character of Dorothy and you have to change the plot.

Say Dorothy discovered she loved Munchkinland so much she wanted to settle down in a little blue house and never leave. An author who has fallen in love with the world he's built can easily have his feelings transfer to a character without realizing it. But say the author still wanted Dorothy to travel to the Emerald City and meet Oz, destroy the witch, etc.--all because he'd worked the plot out that way and it has to happen. He can put Dorothy through her paces and force her to leave her new home, but the events will feel contrived to the reader and Dorothy's motivation to travel and return to Kansas will seem false (or lacking altogether).

I seem to understand the nature of plot as character when it comes to novels, and sometimes I get it right in stories too. More often, though, the characters in my short stories are passive people to whom plots occur. That's why the "retired" folder on my computer is so full. Until this week, I thought I just needed to figure out what I'd done wrong with each plot and fix it, and that would fix the stories. Now I know I need to fix the characters.

I don't plan to work on those stories anymore, though. They're dead things, stillborn. But I can see myself writing more stories--and better ones--from now on. I no longer have to wrestle with the plot problem. Instead, I get to focus entirely on character, which is what I love about writing novels and what I used to miss about writing short stories.

After all, it's my strength.

*Although I seem to understand "plot as character" intrinsically in my novels now, it wasn't always the case. My early attempts at novels have the same problems that many of my stories have now.

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