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Plot, Character and Story

What should we write about?

There’s a very simple answer to this. Whatever advances the story. What does this mean, though? What is the story?

One thing for sure – it’s not merely the plot. Most stories have a plot which could be summarized in a few lines.

It’s also not a matter of telling us more about the characters. If we’re telling the reader stuff about the characters which doesn’t matter, it doesn’t work.

This is the mystery of writing. The point of the characters is to advance the plot. The point of the plot is to reveal, by torture, what the characters are like. Take your favourite story, and you’ll find the plot and characters inextricably entangled.

How do we summarise a story? Well, if we can summarise a story in fewer words – without losing anything – then the story is too long, and has something in there that doesn’t belong. A story should consist of exactly what it takes to tell the story.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a taut, brief Hemingwayesque style. If the story needs endless diversions and distractions, then they should be provided. If very little happens in the plot, the meandering thoughts of the protagonists may still be enthralling. What happens in Joyce’s Ulysses? Very little.

There are plenty of writers’ guides that will say that characters should change in the story, or be in jeopardy, or learn important lessons. That something important should be at stake. This might be so, but there are plenty of stories where nothing changes, where nobody learns anything, nothing is at stake, and everything ends up exactly where it started. Indeed, that’s almost a specification for a typical sitcom. A story doesn’t have to go anywhere.

How do we know what our story is? This might seem obvious. However, it’s easy to be caught out. I submitted a story for evaluation thinking I knew what it was about. I found out that my main character was unsympathetic. I couldn’t understand this at first. I knew what a nice guy he really was. However, I had forgotten to show it. I’d concentrated on the plot, and forgotten what the story was. The kind of person he was, the relationships he had – they were at the heart of the story. I’d told the reader everything that happened, but I hadn’t told them the story at all. Is this an easy determination to make? Almost never.

 

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3 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading that – thank you. I think it is easy sometimes to miss what we are trying to say because we are so close to our own stories.

    Reply
  2. As the progenitor of our stories, not only are we too close but, more succinctly, we know too much. I think I’m going to do a post on this, idea…off I go.

    Reply
  3. Interesting point! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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