Article: Hold on to Your Plot Part 2

A continuation from the article I posted here, read about how you can hold onto your plot by working with your characters, etc.

Article found here:

Plot and Characters
This is a good point to begin learning more about the characters, because there is an intimate relationship between them and the story and plot. You can plan a carefully detailed, workable plot before outlining the characters but if you do, they run the risk of being unconvincing, mechanical plot devices. So it is important to see your narrative as a complex interaction between the plot and the characters.

To make your story work, the characters need to be comfortable with the demands of the plot. I have often found my characters refusing to do what the plot dictates, simply because it would be against their nature. When this happens the problem is more than likely to be that the characters were fleshed out too late in the process, and the solution may be to change the course of events, alter the emphasis or abandon the plot altogether and start again. This sounds drastic but rethinking the characters and their relationships is much less satisfactory than making changes to the plot. Tailoring your characters to fit the plot risks narrowing their potential, making them less interesting and lifelike.

In my novel, The Dancing Face, the plot originally centred around Gus, whose younger brother, Danny, starts out as a minor, peripheral character. But as the narrative developed, I began to be more interested in Danny, and to feel that Gus’ plot lacked complexity and tension. The solution was easy – get rid of Gus. I moved Danny into the main current of events using a plot development in which he sets out to discover what happened to his brother. All this forced major alterations, from which a new plot developed naturally, but without a clear plan to begin with, it might have been impossible for me to work out what was going wrong and how to fix it.

The positive aspect of this problem is that the way that characters react to developments in the plot often provides the sparks which move the entire process forward. Raymond Chandler once remarked that when he got stuck, he had someone come through the door with a gun in his hand. This illustrates the role characters can play in deciding what comes next – faced with a new situation, they are obliged to react and their reactions, in turn, move the plot on to a new stage.

This is a hint about how to get your plot moving – something must happen. This is the novelist’s equivalent of the Big Bang, after which nothing can be the same. It might be an action, an insight, a visit, an overheard remark or a recovered memory, but whatever it is, the event has to produce a change in the world of the characters which will compel a response. This response then leads to a series of developments which in turn provoke new changes, and the end comes when there is a final resolution between characters and events around them.

Finding a Formula
It is crucial to outline, as clearly as possible, the map of the world in which the characters existed before the Big Bang which starts your story. The narrative might begin with this map, but it might also drop in at the instigating event itself or start with another one of the strands built into your structure. In any case, the status quo is a vital framework for making sense of the changes which drive the plot.

So the average plot can be reduced to a formula which reads something like this:

  1. A conflict or disturbance in the status quo
  2. Character response and development
  3. Resolution

To say, however, that the typical plot can be reduced to a basic formula is not quite the same thing as saying that you can create a good plot by using a formula.

These motivating incidents which kick-start a plot generally come in two varieties. First, there are external incidents, an event outside the control of the characters. In most crime fiction, for example, the plot begins with a crime but other genres might use a visit, an accident or a random insight. The point of an external incident is, of course, to provoke disturbance and change in the lives of the characters.

Then there are internal incidents, where the pattern reversed and events are prompted by a character’s interaction with another or with the outside world. Here, a character’s internal stresses lead to actions which drive the plot, such as the need to change something about themselves or the world around them.

True to Life?

A useful guide to testing the viability of the plot is outlining the major characters and sketching out the interaction between them inside the framework of your story. The behaviour imposed by the demands of the plot should be logical and convincing – if not, then as mentioned before you should consider altering the plot to fit your characters.

For example, in The Dancing Face one of the major protagonists is a Nigerian millionaire, Okigbo. In the book he is amoral, charming, powerful, treacherous and driven by a consuming greed. He hires Gus, an idealistic black British man, to steal a priceless African mask which he intends to use for his own commercial and political purposes. Gus agrees because he wants to use the theft as a way of calling attention to Britain’s imperial history and its injustices.

The motives and character of the two men are fundamentally in contradiction, so their mutual conflict and betrayal is an inevitable development. Taking the plot in any other direction would have contradicted what I knew about both men.

Be warned though – real life does not have the neatness of a typical plot. Only a percentage of crimes are actually solved, mysteries remain mysterious, people disappear never to be seen again or die unpredictably, and good seldom triumphs over evil. This has implications for the progress of the plot. As long as there is a resolution of some kind, endings don’t necessarily have to be neatly tied up with characters riding off together into the sunset.

Coincidences are another feature of real life but if the plot depends completely on convenient happenstance, you’re heading for disaster. On the other hand, events may take a completely different course if a character happens to miss a train, or bumps into an old friend at random, so make sure you have a good reason for using them.

Article found here: