Action vs Plot and Fresh vs Formula

A few months ago, a friend and fellow writer came to me with questions about action, plot, and how to tell a unique story. His questions were fantastic and I wanted to share our conversation for those of you who might be asking yourselves the same thing; “How can I write a story that is fresh and new if I’m following the ‘rules’ and ‘formula’ set out by tried-and-true authors?”

Hi Rebecca! I wanted to ask you about action vs plot. Are the two mutually exclusive? What’s the deal with that and why? Should one expect an action movie to have a plot? Why would viewers care if it doesn’t have one?

Oh, good question. Action, particularly in the action movie genre, tends to refer more specifically to motion and movements that are being taken. Action movies involve a great deal of momentum. The pace is usually quite fast and a lot of exciting events tend to occur.
Plot is more collective; it’s about WHY those actions happen, and when and how. The plot involves the motivations of the characters and the causal affect, why one action leads into, or causes, a reaction.

An action movie SHOULD have a plot, but some don’t. If stuff is blowing up and people are running about everywhere but there isn’t some underlying sense of motivation and purpose there is no plot.

A lot of ‘real life’ is fairly plotless. We do stuff, because it’s a new day; that’s action. But without goals and dreams there is no plot and we tend to wander from action to action aimlessly.

Is it ever a good idea to be whimsical or plotless? I can see that being intentionally plotless, would fit as a plot device (ironically) to make something seem more natural or possibly light-hearted…

Like I said, a lot of real life IS plotless, but during the writing process it’s best to have a plot because in a story things are supposed to happen for a reason. If you factor in an action or event that appears to be plotless it is because within your plot that ‘natural’ or ‘light-hearted’ event is important to the story.

This is Chekov’s Gun Theory, which states, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

What this comes down to is plot devices. Everything in the story should serve the purpose of the plot. If it isn’t related then it doesn’t belong in the story. The plotless stuff should get taken OUT of a story.

Guy gets up, has coffee, blows his nose, has a shower… The reader doesn’t CARE! So it gets cut. Unless something significant happens in the event, such as his coffee is poisoned or he blows his brains out of his nose, it is noise that will bore and frustrate a reader. If an object, scene, or an action doesn’t serve the plot then it’s superfluous padding which can slow down and even dumb down a story.

Why does a story need to be plot-driven?

Some stories are considered to be plot-driven while others are considered to be character-driven. If the scene develops the reader’s connection with the character it’s considered to be a character-driven scene and doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ a plot. But it’s better if the characters are driving the plot with all of their actions. That is how the two weave together.
Ideally, plot and character go together.

It’s the kind of thing worth considering when reading books. Look at them with your writer’s eye; pay attention to what feels connected to the greater theme of the story. Does anything happen that doesn’t, ultimately, lead into what happens next?
Life does that. If anything in my past had happened differently I wouldn’t be who I am in the present. And books are the same; the action serves the purpose of the plot, or at least it should.

Plot “devices” can be used for connectedness, people can often either remember or miss, something that happened earlier and how it relates to what happened later, but you want your story to be unique and character-driving is how you do that right? If a story is too plot-driven it often becomes contrived and predictable; it will feel fake, and readers will get emotionally disconnected.

You need both. Or rather, I should say, the best stories have both. There are plenty of stories that are “ok” which cater to one or the other predominantly but the stories readers come to love, the ones they become immersed in and won’t put down, are those which keep a balance between character and plot. Those stories build character enough to make us care that these things happen to this person, and plot enough to make what happens interesting.

So how do you escape the “same ol’ thing”? How do you make it something readers haven’t ever read before? How do you do something they wouldn’t predict?

Unique writing usually comes from voice. The same basic plot, even very similar characters have been written about hundreds of times before. (This is the basis of The Hero’s Journey.) But YOU haven’t written them. The way YOU tell the story will differ from the story someone else told.

If you talk to twenty people at a birthday party, every one of those twenty people would describe the party in a different and unique way. It would be like there were twenty parties instead of one. Each of us brings our own experiences and unique perspective to our storytelling.
Your storytelling can do things in a unique way based on your voice and the ideas that are uniquely yours.

Is it better to do what is expected or to prepare the reader for what is to come? Is dropping hints a good thing or should you just hit them with stuff?

It is better to balance the expected with the unexpected. Prepare and don’t prepare. Readers love twists, they love surprises, but they don’t like being mislead or sent off on tangents.

So, even if you do something unexpected, when the reader looks back it should be eye-opening for them. On reflection, they should be able to see the things that pointed to the twist before the twist happened.

For example, the second time you watch the movie, “Sixth Sense”, you realise there are lots of things that pointed to the twist from the very first scene. Natural human assumption about the way the world works creates a belief that causes viewers to miss those crucial hints the first time we see the movie, the twist makes us go “Shock, WOW!” and then ohhh, there, and there, oh yes, I remember that happening, etc.

Hints are good. Intelligent readers especially love the thrill of getting hints and trying to guess the ending. But be careful not to make those hints too obvious or the reader will guess and be right.

A lot of the advice you’re giving, and writer’s are given generally, applies because it’s a tried-and-true analysis of stuff that’s already been written, but how does one approach writing something completely new? Using the same methods as before doesn’t sound like it makes something fresh.

Well, you can write things completely opposite to that which is tried-and-true. It might work, but it might also become the biggest flop in this history of big flops. That’s what innovation is about; taking a chance that it won’t suck it big time.

If you want to write a book you can sell, you do it the way that has proven to work. Publishers don’t like taking risks so particularly for those of us writing for traditional publishers it can be important to follow the ‘rules’ and do what has proven to work.

If you want to do something fantastically unique and new, then don’t follow the ‘rules’. You have to be willing to break all the rules. It might pay off, but it might not. You have to weigh up if the risk is worth it to you. If you love the process of writing without following the tried-and-true, if it’s fun to be wild like that, then go for it. Forge the path for other writers to follow the new rules you create.

The only real ‘rule’ in writing is to write what you love. Because, odds are, if you love it there will be readers out there who love it as much as you do.

Original conversation took place on the 14th of September, 2010.

Fiction Characters: Do You Need A Mental “No Vacancy” Sign?

Do your fictional characters keep you awake at night?It is 3:57 in the morning. Do you know where your characters are? If you are like most writers, you know exactly where they are because they refuse to let you get a proper nights sleep, or bath, or read, or time alone to enjoy the minutiae of life.

Once you have given life to someone, sometimes they do not shut up. I find this to be true of children, and characters. I rarely get to spend my hour commute listening to the radio, or relaxing with the windows rolled down and my mind on mute. As soon as the fiction characters in my latest story realize I’m alone the chatter starts.

The first time this happened to me, I was sure I was schizophrenic. When I stopped at each red light while driving, I tried to jot down an idea but, by then the characters had told their friends that I was free, and I forgot what I was noting in the first place.

Forget taking a bath. I used to think the kids, and the dog were most deft at keeping me from taking a bath alone. No, it is the antagonist calling to say he is ready to kill my main character, and by the way, …I need to shave my legs.

Sleeping can be like running a relay race. When I sleep someone shouts something into my psyche, and I have to jump up to write. My best stuff comes at 3:00 A M decidedly, because like an infant, that is when my fiction characters are awake. After I have pecked the brainstorm into my computer, I head back to bed. Usually, I can fall back asleep. At least until, the protagonist finds out what his adversary said about him.

When I first started writing, it drove me mad to share my brain with all the people who were crashing my psychological party. Now, when I’m done with a story, and things get quiet, I have let down.

I want to throw up the No Vacancy Sign!I sit in the tub and wait for someone to say something. Then I lay in bed, and listen to the quiet wishing my fiction characters would “throw me a bone.” When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of jabber going on in my brain, and I want to throw up the NO VACANCY sign, I remember how lonely I am without them.

I just flipped my sign over, reads Vacancy – welcome all night owls. I’ll probably catch you all at about 2:30…in the morning.

Do your fiction characters keep you awake at night? When was the last time you were able to have a relaxing bath or drive from one side of town to the other without their company? How do you deal with the lack of mental vacancies?

Photo Credit: Nathan Barry
Photo Credit: DG Jones

Talent Casting: Audition Your Fiction Character

Selecting the talent. Casting the fiction characters of your story.Writing fiction is sometimes about finding the right talent, casting the right fiction character for the role, or creating a cast of rich and multi-dimensional personalities. There are a number of character creation methods and each writer learns their most effective character development tools through research and experience. My own process continues to grow and develop as my writing grows up.

Click here to get your copy of James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom's How to Create Believable CharactersA few months ago I bought myself a clever e-book called “How to Create Believable Characters” by James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom. It’s packed with practical information on how to build your very own fiction character, or role-playing alter-ego, from scratch. I read it eagerly, already fascinated with character development and creation.

As I read, I drank in every piece of advice it offered. I gained a better understanding of why I write the way I write and I improved my character creation skills. I learned how to choose and create talent; casting the “right” protagonist for each fiction story.

There are two “schools” when writing fiction. One is a “plot-driven” story where you develop an intense plot, a situation into which you place characters. I am in the other “school”, a writer who discovers a protagonist first and then writes a plot that gives that star her life and purpose. This is a ‘character-driven’ story. Can you think of any “character-driven stories” you’ve read recently?

Who is she?

When I first decide to write a new story, I visualize my heroine. Most of the time it’s a ‘she’, simply because I’m used to thinking like a girl. I do know female writers who prefer to write male characters (and do a fantastic job of it too) but for some reason I prefer writing women.

My heroine may be young or old, clever, stupid, pretty, dull… I spend some time trying to get to know her. I don’t decide ‘how she is’ instead, I get a feel for ‘who she is’.

Who is your protagonist?There are some elements I decide up front. Is she stubborn, or reckless, or depressed? I follow my instincts and she becomes whatever most sparks my interest at that time.

Other aspects come naturally as I continue to think about her. It might fit her to be afraid of dogs; maybe she is a school teacher. Does she have any particular talent casting her into the spotlight? Is she likely to go for the bad boy type, or does she prefer the office underdog. (Oh, perhaps she would usually go for the bad boy type but falls for the office underdog!)

Becoming Herself

After developing my protagonist’s traits and personality, I give my fiction character a life. Some of her past was determined earlier in the character creation process. Now it is time to explore her history and to decide what has happened to shape her into the person she is. Plot elements begin to emerge as her life takes form.

Here’s where it gets tricky. After the fun of writing, planning, and mapping out my heroine’s intriguing story, I notice aspects of her that no longer “fit”. As I focus on plot development I sometimes find that, this protagonist isn’t right for this plot.

Why not add that lacking ‘something’ to my original character? That would be the obvious and easy way to fix my dilemma, wouldn’t it? Couldn’t we force her to be what we want, gift her with that particular skill or talent? Casting her into a role that doesn’t suit her, however, is not a simple solution.

My characters become “real” the minute I start developing them, which means they have their own faults, traits, and personality. They are imperfect in a carefully balanced way – each and every one is unique.

Giving my heroine a new flaw or quality, just because the plot calls for it and not because it feels a part of her, causes her to lose that sense of being “real”. It makes her thin, stiff, two-dimensional; the organic creation process has been broken.

(There is of course another side to this. The needed flaw or quality could be a part of her in-story development or personal development goals… But that is for another post.)

It’s Talent Casting Time!

Now, I have this great story, all lined up for exploring and turning into a masterpiece, but my protagonist just isn’t right for the part. Do I scratch it and start over? No way!

I do a talent casting call.

I have tons of talent on hold that got dumped from other stories because they didn’t fit. Are any of them perfect for this role? If none of those characters are suitable, I think about which traits this protagonist needs and make that aspect a starting point for a new rising star.

By now I’ve changed the story several times and every time I do another call. I change the story a little for every character. After auditioning many people for the job they have all influenced the final story and add to it’s richness and depth.

Once I’ve my found leading lady, I can begin talent casting the supporting roles.

While this method can be time consuming in the early planning stages of fiction writing, the outcome is a full cast of strong characters I know and understand like old friends. They are the “right” characters for their specific role and are a good fit for the story. The writing process becomes easier because I’m no longer struggling with uncooperative, pigeon-holed characters. Now, when I’m writing fiction, I don´t “decide” my character likes or does things, I “know” she does.

The Final Curtain Call

In the end, my story becomes both plot-driven and character-driven. It is packed with a powerful selection of multi-dimensional, realistic personalities. The cast of characters live their own lives and I record it rather than control it.

Have you tried talent casting your characters? What other methods have you used to develop the star of your story?

Click here to get your copy of James Chartrand and Taylor Lindstrom's How to Create Believable Characters

Photo Credit: 01-12-10 © John-Francis Bourke
Photo Credit: 04-10-07 © Sean Locke

Book Review: The Plot Thickens

I’d like to give my sincere thanks to Katie-Anne Gustafsson for this Guest Review. I haven’t had a chance to read Noah Lukeman’s book, “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” but it definitely sounds like this book and Noah’s first, “The First Five Pages” are necessary additions to my writer’s shelf. I hope you enjoy her review.

Noah Lukeman’s second book (his first being “The First Five Pages”) is about plot, and yet it’s also about characters. Anyone who loves to write character-driven plots will love this book! Create a character (the first two chapters of the book show you how) and then map a journey for them to take. What kind of person are they? How would they react to various situations? The exercises at the end of each chapter allow you to build your character into a three-dimensional person who has a goal and, perhaps, a mind of their own!

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” is not just a instructional, it’s an ideas book. What I particularly loved about this book was that the examples used came not only from books, but also from well-known movies. I hadn’t seen all the movies referenced, but I did know enough about all of them to see the point that was being illustrated.

Plot is one of the hardest disciplines in the fiction writing field for many writers. How to get from a-to-b in a believable route that doesn’t meander too far off track is often a tricky job. “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” gives advice how to achieve this in the most natural way possible.

An easy to read book that can be read from start to finish, or which can be delved into whenever you’re blocked for an idea on where your plot should go next, “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” is a guide that will complement any writer’s reference shelf.

Have you read Noah Lukeman’s book? I would love to know what you thought of it. Feel free to leave your comments, review, or book review link in the comments. Are there any books in particular you’d like to know more about or would you like to share a Guest Review on Writer’s Round-About? Leave a comment or drop me an email!

Read more about Plot and Structure!