Let’s take an action-adventure example, for example. Let’s think about Back to the Future, a lightweight little action comedy, with time travel, that many of you will have seen. It was big when I was in my teens, and featured Michael J Fox, Crispin Glover, and Lea Thompson.
(It also has four women, as I recall, and Lorraine and Linda McFly talk to each other about… well, about being slutty and getting men. The portrayal of Libyan terrorists, on the other hand, can fairly be said to lack anything approaching political sensitivity.)
Bechdel rating aside, adventure hijinks throw Marty back in time. He falls into the path of the 1955 versions of his parents, and screws up their budding romance. He has to get his Cupid on, interesting the two of them in each other. He has to catch a lightning bolt, experience the wonder of performing music live onstage, inspire Chuck Berry and then return to the Eighties in time to save Christopher Lloyd from a gory, bullet-riddled death.
There’s a lot going on, yes? It’d be easy to mistake all this action for the story.
But, in a sense, it’s not the story. It’s the delicious deep-fry coating around the meat. The story is that Marty gets to meet his dad, for whom he has compassion but little real use, as a teen. The story is that Marty encourages George to give up on his defeatist can’t do attitude.
George McFly has the enormous good fortune to be Crispin Glover, but at this point in his life, he has no idea he’s going to become the (completely weird) asskicking nemesis of Charlie’s Angels. If he did, it would bolster his self-esteem considerably. Instead, he’s pretty much a young version of the guy Marty knows, and his primary hobby is not going after things he wants while letting the rapacious high school bully kick him around the block.
George is wimpy, shy, self-effacing, and utterly unprepared to do anything about any of these character traits. His dream is to become a science fiction writer, but he just doesn’t have the inner confidence. Small wonder, then, that Marty is seeking alternative male role models in people like Christopher Lloyd.
When you step back from the wacky Fifties versus Eighties jokes and the arguably cool car and the lightning chasing and all the scampering around, what ultimately makes the two McFly men victorious is a little moment where George decides he’s tough enough to take on Biff the Bully.
The thing about watching someone struggle with their weaknesses in real life is that, in the first place, things aren’t usually so tidy. Sometimes hitting Biff gets you hospitalized. Even if it doesn’t, watching someone flail in this way is usually boring as all get out. We want to believe in transformations, but in reality people tend to change slowly, if at all. There’s a reason most great stories aren’t confined to comfy, well-heated psychiatry offices.
Mmmm, Hannibal. Sorry, irrelevant.
Plot is a way of elevating the dull process of character growth. It does this by pummelling the character with interesting challenges, and eventually bringing them to a make-or-break point, where it’s change or die. (Die spiritually, sometimes, but die nonetheless). And often, the character is colossally ill-suited to the very thing they need to achieve. Wimpy George needs to confront Beefy Biff? Are you deranged?
How is this helpful when you’re writing a book or story?
The answer is this: it’s easy to get lost in the nuts and bolts of what happens next. The clock tower, the magic car, the dance and the confrontation with the terrorists out at the Lone Pine Mall are all delightful and shiny and distracting. It’s easy to forget that all of that fun and really gratifying stuff could be stripped out and changed. The Delorean could be a firetruck. Instead of being a musician, Marty could desperately want to grow up to be a championship swimmer. The whole thing could be a western, with Biff the Bully as the cattle-ranching rich guy and Crispin Glover in a ten gallon hat. Back to the Future could even be a heartfelt contemporary drama about the new kid at the high school encouraging George to be a more confident person, one whose new strength of character has far-reaching beneficial effects on everyone around him.
I’m glad it’s not. I love it, skateboard chases and all.
But my point is: look at whatever you’re writing now. Who’s making that apparently mundane decision to stop being this kind of person, and start being that kind instead? If the answer is “I’m not sure,” maybe you need to knead your plot a little.
A. M. Dellamonica has recently moved to Toronto, Canada, after 22 years in Vancouver. In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West and teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, will be released by Tor Books this month. She is the author of over thirty short stories in a variety of genres: they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and in numerous print magazines and anthologies. Her website is at http://alyxdellamonica.com.