Creative Intersections: Plot and Character Development

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As of December 27, Thieftaker, the first book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, is available as an audio book from Audible.com.  The reading was done by Jonathan Davis, who happens to be a friend of A.J.’s who also did the voicings for A.J.’s Will books.  If you are one of those people who enjoys listening to audio books as much as you do reading regular books, I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t listen to a lot of audio books, but I have enjoyed those I’ve heard.  I also find, though, that listening to someone read a book tends to highlight for me all the flaws in the writing.  This is one of the reasons why I read my own work aloud when I am revising.  But it’s a little different when it’s my own book, and it’s too late for me to edit. Yesterday, after a couple of weeks of being too chicken, I finally went online and listened to a sample of Jonathan’s reading of my novel.  I had been afraid that I would hate the sound of my writing.  I didn’t, which I guess is a good thing.  But still, I could only bring myself to listen for about a minute.  Then I had to shut it off.

What could possibly be the point of this? Well, actually there is no point.  But if you’re into audio books, I do hope you’ll check out Thieftaker in its audio incarnation.

Last week, I began my Creative Intersections series with a discussion of worldbuilding and point of view.  In the comments to last week’s post many of you (at my prompting) offered ideas of other creative intersections you’d like to see, and I intend to get to all of them eventually.  But this week, I’m going to continue the series with a post on Plot and Character Development.  This is actually as natural a pairing as I could possibly think up, because narrative and character arcs usually develop along parallel paths.  But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Let me start by saying that I am a devoted outliner, and that as my career has progressed, I have become more committed to outlining rather than less.  I’ve just started the next book in the Thieftaker series (number 3 — City of Shades), and I have this one outlined chapter by chapter, all the way through to the end, in greater detail than I’ve put in any outline for any book I’ve written until now.  In plotting the book out ahead of time, of course, I have tried to figure out my narrative sign posts, the twists and turns of my story, the intricacies of the mystery at the center of my novel.  

Plotting, to my mind, is akin to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, except that there is no image on the box top to tell you what it ought to look like.  In fact, it’s a puzzle that doesn’t fully have form until the novel is finished.  I usually try to begin with at least three major story threads, preferably more than that.  For instance, in City of Shades, there is the primary mystery that Ethan has to solve, an underlying relationship between Ethan and the main villain that stretches back several years, the rivalry between Ethan and Sephira Pryce and how it plays out, and the historical element of the tale which involves both Revolutionary Era politics and an outbreak of smallpox.  Ideally, I want to pursue each of these storylines simultaneously, so that they begin, develop, and conclude at roughly the same places in the novel.  At the risk of mixing my creative metaphors, the subplots ought to come together in something resembling (conceptually) a braid.

Character arc, I believe, can work much the same way.  There are, naturally, many characters in just about any given novel, and in the same way that plot threads develop together, so do lead characters grow and change simultaneously, their arcs overlapping, blending, interacting with one another to tell a larger tale.  Again thinking about City of Shades, I have not only Ethan, but also Sephira, and my villain (who shall remain nameless for now).  Their paths through the story are quite different; Ethan and my villain might even be said to move in opposite directions.  But their arcs work together to tell the story, and the significant moments in their development coincide with the key plot points in my various narrative threads.

Since you don’t know City of Shades, let me use a different example to show what I mean.  Think of the first Star Wars movie.  The major plot threads, of course, are Luke’s growth into a young Jedi warrior, Vader’s pursuit of Leia, Han, Luke and the rebels, and Obi-Wan’s history with Vader.  The main characters’ arcs overlap, intersecting at key plot points — the murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle, the destruction of Leia’s home planet, Han and Luke’s “rescue” of Leia, etc.  If you think about the movie’s plot and important moments in each character’s life, you begin to understand the way in which the various narrative arcs and character arcs work together to create a single, sweeping tale.

Of course, as we consider these story elements, we quickly see how other storytelling elements interact with those things we call “plot” and “character development.”  The pacing of each story thread has to be just right.  The interaction among the various characters — the conflict points — have to remain true to each character’s personality and background.  Turning back to novels, we have to be certain that our point of view character for each section is the right one, that the voice for each of these sections works properly, that the prose, tone, and imagery matches the mood.

This, in a sense, is the point of these creative intersection posts:  Nothing in a novel (or in a movie) happens in isolation.  It is all part of a greater whole.

But for the purposes of this post, the thing to remember is that character arcs and narrative arcs need to develop in tandem, drawing on the same plot points, but by necessity taking something different from them.  (Again using a Star Wars example — the destruction of Alderaan is devastating for Leia of course, and in a way marks the high water mark for the Empire in their fight with the rebels; it shows Obi-Wan just how dangerous the Empire has grown and forces him, in the end, to sacrifice himself in his fight with Vader in order to “make himself more powerful than [he] can ever imagine.”  It is also raises the stakes in the rebels’ struggle with the Empire, making the threat the rebels face pretty much existential and setting up the climax of the movie.) 

I’ll return to the image of the braid — it should all begin at the same place, it should all end at the same place, and in between it should all be interwoven.  It’s easier than it sounds.  Actually, it’s not.  It’s exactly as difficult as it sounds.  But it is the essence of good storytelling, and, so, is something that all of us — professionals and aspiring writers alike — need to work on as we write our novels.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net

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18 comments to Creative Intersections: Plot and Character Development

  • This is one of those things that took me a bit to learn and become intuitive with. I’m much better at getting a sense of when perspective shifts should take place and to which character, and what impact that has on the story (and character), than I was long ago. Reading through the first draft of my sci-fi (seeming dishearteningly too long ago now), I suddenly realized that I needed the perspective of the antagonist, much like you get the perspective of Darth Vader and the Empire in Star Wars. I didn’t get a sense of the enemy without that connection and it became rather faceless as a result. In the second draft, I ran through and found the most logical places to drop a perspective shift and it improved the story overall. Yes, writing is much like juggling a dozen invisible balls through a fine mist of paint. They only slowly become easier to see as you go.

    There’s a program out there called, Writer’s Dream Kit from Write Brothers Inc, that runs you through a series of questions, eventually giving you a rough outline of your characters, their motivations, their connections, and finally your plot. It has you assign whether they are the protagonist, antagonist, contagonist, sidekick, reason, skeptic, emotion, or guardian, and whether main character or impact character, or neither. It’s an interesting program, I’ve had my copy for several years now and I’ve used it a time or two when I was stuck. It’s got a number of other little features, but I’ve mainly used that outline generator. Within it, they have Star Wars as an example and shows you the different characters and their connections, among other things. It’s got a storyboard feature that allows you to split plot points up into sections, like the index card approach. Like most all of these types of programs, it’s not perfect, but gives you a really good place to start if you only have a few seemingly disconnected ideas and a main character bouncing around in your head. It sort of makes you think on those things that might only be diaphanous (or sometimes more like a slice of big-eye Swiss) at the moment.

  • TwilightHero

    ‘…the thing to remember is that character arcs and narrative arcs need to develop in tandem, drawing on the same plot points, but by necessity taking something different from them.’

    I love the simplicity of this. It never occurred to me to put it into words, but makes perfect sense looking back over my WIP: all the pivotal character developments take place at pivotal points in the story. I must have picked this up somewhere along the line without ever realizing it. Cool :) Enjoying the series, by the way.

  • Oh, oh, oh — I love that “jigsaw puzzle” image, and I intend to use it in future discussions (fully attributed, of course!) As for intersecting plot and character arcs, your discussion of this reminds me of the screenwriting workshop I took, where the instructor explicitly defined “plot” as having an external struggle (what we think of as “plot”) and an internal struggle (what we think of as “character”). To him, the high points, the pauses, etc., were all simultaneous in both struggles — plot became undifferentiated from character. (I disagree with some of that in novel writing — we can do a lot more with internal space than a movie can — but the concept, like your post, left me thinking…)

  • Megan B.

    Perhaps it is really easier than it sounds. The more we read good books and watch good movies, the more we should develop an innate sense for this. Look at what TwilightHero said: “I must have picked this up somewhere…”

    I never gave conscious thought to this intersection either, but thinking back on my WIP, the major character developments do indeed coincide with major plot points. Yay!

    Still, it’s very good to see this put into words, and it can only be useful to keep it in mind when outlining or writing.

  • Daniel, thanks for the information about the program — it sounds interesting and like something that could be a valuable tool in the planning stages of a new project. I have found, as you did, that shifting perspective can often rescue a story that seems to be in trouble. It’s harder when your book or story has only one POV character, but for those moments, introducing a new character, even one who is not a POV character, can be helpful as well. As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Twilight, thanks very much. I do think that the overlapping of character and story arc is something that many of us come to naturally. But I also think that breaking down the mechanics of it to make us conscious of the things we’re doing has value. Very glad to hear that you’re enjoying this series of posts.

    Mindy, glad you like the image. It’s one I’ve used before to explain another phenomenon I’ve noticed in my writing. Just as with a puzzle, my early work always comes slowly, as I’m trying to figure out how everything fits together. But the more progress I make in a book, the faster subsequent progress comes; the fewer pieces that remain “out of place” the easier it is to locate them. And so by the end of a novel (and at the end of working on a puzzle) I tend to fly through the remaining plot points and character issues. Like you I’m wary of wedding character and plot entirely. There is much overlap, but I would be reluctant to say that they are undifferentiated. Fodder for discussion the next time we’re together . . .

    Megan, thanks. I do think there is value in examining our process, even if we seem to have already internalized the things we ought to be doing.

  • Reading aloud is worth it! Did you see Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance speech when he received a Golden Globe last night? He specifically thanked his friends for listening when he read his scripts aloud to them. :)

    I agree with everyone else here about this feeling like something I’ve been doing intuitively, but it’s also great to see you put a name to it, David. Thanks! :)

  • sagablessed

    I personally like the ‘braid’ image. Several storylines coming to gether to make something greater than the sum. Kindda like a jellyfish. (Bad analogy, but all I can think of.)
    I never read my own stories aloud: I hate the sound of my voice, and have no one to read them to me. So I muddle along.

    Good post!!
    ps Mindy…I still hate spreadsheets. I see the value, but -

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I think I’m just really thick when it comes to plot issues. But, your comment about starting off with at least 3 plot threads to work with seems pretty helpful, and especially recognizing that certain character relationships count as plot threads – and that they can(should) be tied to the external events! I suspect that this is going to make outlining future projects make so much more sense. Thank you.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Great article, great puzzle metaphor. I agree that outlining is very important.
    But I just can’t do it. My imagination stalls when I try to be organized. When I started work on Quantum Cannibals all I had in mind was an event from Kurdistani-Jewish folklore, and a historic battle on Cyprus. I told myself “hmmm- fantasy; I need swords,” so I threw in an Early Bronze Age piece of plot.
    When I wrote, I was a reader, surprised and delighted at what my characters were doing. When they bored me or did ridiculous things, I backtracked.
    A jigsaw puzzle is determinist; the pieces can only fit together one way, even with no picture. My novel is more like a quilt. Thankfully, we can cut and paste (sew and re-sew) to get a pleasing combination of shapes and colors. (I recall my father’s writing (in Yiddish), where he literally cut and pasted pages, and then went downtown to the photocopy service.) Detailed outlining would be utterly imperative without computers. Discipline would be utterly imperative without computers.

  • Laura, reading aloud is definitely worth it. And I would imagine that it’s even more valuable for screenwriters, who NEED to hear their dialog. Thanks for the comment.

    Donald, if you really hate reading your stories aloud, you might want to find a program for your computer that will read them to you. Apple machines have this loaded on them. It really is helpful to hear your work; can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Hep, thanks. I’m very glad to know that you found the post helpful. Hope it’s information you can use as you move forward with your various projects.

    Nathan, thanks for the comment and the kind words. I know what you mean about a puzzle being determinist, which is why I tried to specify in the post that it is “a puzzle that doesn’t fully have form until the novel is finished.” But I do think we’re basically coming to the issues from the same place, even if our terminology and imagery is a bit different. And yeah, when I think about doing what I do on a typewriter rather than a computer, I shudder. The old masters deserve our admiration — for all sorts of reasons.

  • I’m really enjoying your creative intersections! Like most of us, I think I do this one without really thinking about it, but I like being able to think about it and understand the process the way you’ve described it. I also really like the braid analogy, which has helped me visualize how important it is to weave all the strands together evenly throughout the story.

  • Razziecat

    Another extremely timely post for me! :) This is one of the places that my WIP went off the rails, something I will be fixing in the first rewrite. For my next project, I’m definitely going to have fewer major characters going in…

    Re: audiobooks, I really wanted to like them, but when I listened to samples of books I enjoyed reading, I found that the narrator’s choice of pacing, emphasis and inflection was just “off” (to my ears). It sounded too different from what was in my own head, and I just couldn’t concentrate on the story. So I’m really not sure if reading my own work aloud would help; I would read it one way, but someone else would read it differently, if that makes sense.

  • Vyton

    David, this is a really helpful post. I like the three-dimensional image of the braid. The puzzle, too. Very helpful. I’m familiar with Jono’s work on the stage (Georgia Shakespeare), and I like his recorded books a lot. I listen to recorded books when I’m on long trips in the car. I do find that I don’t retain as much of the details hearing a book read as I do when seeing the words. Reading aloud is a must. I read my WIP to my wife who is my first reader. And I read aloud to myself as well. And, yes, I can read silently without moving my lips.

  • quillet

    I really like the braid analogy. You’ve put into words something that I sort of knew but probably wasn’t doing justice to. I’ll be going back to my WiP with fresh eyes now.

    I agree that reading things aloud really helps. I’ve caught and fixed some very clunky sentences that way. I often do it under my breath, though. I probably look mad (maaad, I tell you!) sitting in my chair, staring at my screen, muttering to myself and making faces.

    As for old masters writing on a typewriter…imagine using just a quill (or a little quillet ;) ) and inkpot! *prostrates self before graven images of Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare…*

  • SiSi, thank you. Glad you’re enjoying the posts. That braid analogy seems to be popular, which is good, because I think it’s the most illustrative of the point I’m trying to make. Thanks so much for the comment.

    Razz, good to know that my timing is good in this at least! I hear what you’re saying about reading aloud, but just to clarify, I read my work aloud because when I hear the book (rather than just seeing the words on a page or on the screen) I tend to catch problems in syntax or rhythm that I might otherwise miss. It’s a revision tool, and really nothing more. It doesn’t matter if I read it differently from someone else. The point is simply to experience the book in another way, so that I can be as thorough as possible in assessing its strengths and weaknesses.

    Vyton, thank you. I am very impressed with Jonathan’s work, and look forward to hearing more of it. My family has listened to the Jim Dale recordings of the Harry Potter books again and again on long car rides. I don’t think I would want to experience a book for the first time in that medium, but as a way of going back to a familiar book and experiencing it fresh, I love it.

    Quillet, I’m glad you liked the post. As for reading aloud, yes, I often warn my kids — “I’ll be reading my book aloud today, so if you hear me talking to myself in the office, I haven’t gone off the deep end. Really.” And yes, writing books or plays by hand? I can’t even imagine . . .

  • Oh dear. Shall I admit it? Yes. I suppose so. (deep heavy sigh) I wrote my first 4 books…no, my first 5 books, totally by hand. With a pen. On yellow legal pads. On the first 2 of these books I cut and pasted with scissors and tape and someone with a clunky word processor typed it into final manuscript form. All editing was done on the original paper document. The word difficult does not even begin to describe that process.

    The 3rd and 4th of these books were typed into a word document for me to edit and rewrite. On the following book, I transposed and did the first rewrite on my own *computer*. I use the word knowing it was no such thing by today’s standards. It didn’t even have spell check. Please keep your *crap. she’s an old lady* comments to yourself. :)

    And ditto on this set of posts. Loving them!

  • Glad you’re liking the posts, Faith. Thanks.

    By the time I became a professional writer, everything was being done on computers. It’s not that I’m so much younger than Faith — I’m not — but rather that I came to writing somewhat late in life. I bought my first computer in graduate school. It was a Leading Edge with amber phosphors on a dark screen (the other color choice for the phosphors was green, and I didn’t like the color); it had a floppy drive (5 and 1/4 inch) and a 20 megabyte hard drive! It died in about a year and a half, though it cost me nearly $2,000.00. When I wrote my college thesis, I did so by hand with pen and paper and then typed it into a little terminal in my college library that was connected (by twine and duct tape, I believe) to a mainframe computer in the center of the campus. We had to walk three blocks to pick up the stuff we printed out, and our pages came out, still warm, wrapped in plastic shrink-wrap. Times have changed.

  • *old man voice* Why, back in my day, we hadda cut our words inta rocks. An not flat rocks either. Nah, we couldn’t afford those, we hadda us th’ ol’ rough kind an sand em as smooth as we could get ‘em first with our spit an some sand we dug outta th’ stream bed. An we couldn’t afford chisels, oh no, we hadda use a alligator bone, n let me tell you, whippersnapper, them things put up a powerful fight t’ keep dem bones. An we was glad t’ have it! You kids n yer rolling rocks n yer eyedoodles n thingamapads, facetweeters n whatnot. You don’ know how good ye got it! ;)

    Heh! I still have my old handwritten junk from back in high school…the days before the ease of the Commodore 128D and GeoWrite entered my life (and the dang thing still works!)…and I’m glad I ended up getting some word processing power. My handwriting stinks. Bad enough when other people can’t read it. Terrible when I can’t hardly read it myself. ;)