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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 16: Story, Plot, and Character

If you have read a lot of writing manuals, you will undoubtedly have found instruction in how to create a plot. You may have come to the conclusion that plot and story are the same thing. But they are not.

The stories told in oral cultures do not have plot as we moderns are likely to understand the term. In Orality and Literacy, Professor Walter Ong observes that highly structured plots of the kind we are used to reading can only be created through the use of writing. We are usually taught that plot structures— climactic and linear— are the only way to organize story materials. But plot came into being only with writing. It was first discussed (in writing, of course!) by Aristotle, not in reference to oral storytelling, but in reference to Greek drama, which was composed in writing.

The Greek oral storytellers (Homer, for instance), like all the storytellers who had preceded and followed them, did not organize their material by way of plot. They couldn’t organize their stories that way, because plot depends on the technology of writing, and they didn’t have that technology. Instead they, and all the millions of storytellers like them all over the planet, took a different approach to organizing their materials. This approach—essentially the stringing together of familiar elements— is not inferior to the creation of a highly structured plot. In fact, as celebrated author Ursula LeGuin points out, plot is simply one kind of story.

I find her comments on story and plot so helpful that I’m going to quote them at length here. (I also highly recommend the book from which these comments come, Steering the Craft.)

“I define story,” LeGuin writes, “as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.

“I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

“Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story.”

LeGuin also points out that, while many writing manuals insist that the only source for story is conflict, in fact story may arise from many other sources in human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

And change, she maintains, “is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

Keeping LeGuin’s comments in mind, think on paper about the kind of story you want to write. Will your stories have a plot based on conflict, with lots of action leading to a climax? Or do you want a different kind of story?

Who are the writers who are your models of excellence for the kind of story you want to write?What is it about their stories that you like and would like to learn how to do?

Story and Character
So far, in these lessons on story, I have been talking as if the events of a story were independent from the people involved in them. I have done that for a reason: to give you a chance to practice the skill of coming up with story happenings without at the same time having to consider story people. Now let’s turn to characters.

The happenings or events in a story can come about in two ways: either something happens outside a character—a loved one dies or leaves; a car stops suddenly in traffic; it starts raining— OR a character makes something happen. And once something happens outside a character, then she has to respond; once she makes something happen, other people respond, or other things move and change, like ripples created in a pond once a stone is thrown into the water. And then a story (depending on its complexity) can interweave happenings and a character’s response to happenings, which then create more happenings… and so on.

Often a story begins with one person (or sometimes more than one) in a particular situation. Either something has happened that this person must deal with; or the person chooses to do something. In either case, she or he takes some kind of action. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; making a phone call, or taking a step outside, or even just saying something might be all that’s needed. With his or her action or actions, the person initiates the movement of the story.

What happens next? What happens because of that person’s action? What’s the result of the phone call, or the step outside, or the words he or she speaks? Someone, or something, responds to the action. Now our chosen person—let’s call him our main character—is in a new situation. How does he respond to this situation? What does he do now? And then, what happens as a result of this action?

The forward movement of events in a story typically takes this pattern of action—reaction or result of action—new situation. While it’s certainly true that events can happen in a story without being caused by a character’s actions—say, a storm at sea— readers will want to know how characters respond to those events. And the characters’ responses to situations—what they do—will keep moving the story forward.

When a person in a story acts, when she responds to a situation, that response does even more than keep the story moving: It also reveals something about the kind of person she is. Think of Cinderella, for instance, whose two demanding half-sisters forced her do all the work and criticized her incessantly. In the story, she responds to this situation with cheerfulness and patience. This tells us the kind of person she is: it reveals her character. A person with a different character might respond to the same situation in another way—for instance, by getting angry and ripping up her sisters’ dresses.

A person’s characteristics may be revealed by many things: clothing, choice of home furnishings, tone of voice, facial expressions, and more. When you want to describe a person in a story, you can make use of one or more of these elements. Description, however, will not move a story forward; only a character’s actions will do that.

Even more important, only a character’s actions will reveal his true nature. Appearances can be deceptive: a character who dresses beautifully can still be a villain; his words can hide the truth about him. But how a person acts shows the kind of person he is.

In a story, then, a character’s actions (including speech) can do two things: move the story forward and reveal “character.” As Jane Yolen, a children’s author, puts it even more strongly:“The two go together,” she says. “Character is plot and plot is character. And action is the key word for both.”

It seems to me that one of the characteristics of traditional stories, and stories derived from oral tradition, is that they are founded on this interweaving of character and action. In this, I suspect, they are different from much contemporary fiction, which often focuses not on what people do but on how they experience things, on their feelings and thoughts. Perhaps one of the questions we can ask ourselves, as we play with ideas for stories, is whether our story will take place, like traditional tales, largely in the world of action, a public world, or whether it will take place (or some of it will take place) in a world that exists only inside a character’s mind, a private world.

Take one of your practice stories, or one of the story ideas you haven’t used yet, and think about your main character. What kind of person is she or he? Write down everything you think of. Now imagine this person in a situation from your story. How will he act? What is the result of his actions? How does this move the story forward? What does his action reveal about him as a person? Write down your answers, or write this part of the story.

Now take the same situation and put a different character into it. Again, take some notes on this character: what kind of person is she? In this situation, what is she likely to say or do? What will be the result of her speech or actions. Now write the story (or a piece of it.)

What did you notice in doing this exercise?

Every time a character is faced with a situation, she has a choice about how to act. Even failing to act at all is a choice. In making her choice, the character reveals something about who she is. Sometimes this choice is consistent with what readers have already learned about her; sometimes the situation gives her an opportunity to make a choice different from the one readers expect. In both cases, a character’s choice shapes the story and reveals something about her.

Take one of your characters and imagine her in a situation. In this situation, what are her choices? If you like, write them down. Now, in your imagination, picture her taking action. Why does she make this particular choice? As a result of this choice, what happens in the story? As a result of this choice, what is revealed about the character? If you like, write the story.

Choices always have consequences, sometimes unintended ones. Another way to connect character and story is to imagine the consequences of a character’s choices.

Put one of your characters in a situation and imagine how she will act, given the kind of person she is. Now try to imagine the possible consequences of her action: How will it affect other people, for instance? How might they respond? Does this give you any ideas for how your story might develop?

The development of character is an area widely covered in books on writing fiction. If this is something that interests you, you may want to spend some time studying these books.

Take a look at characters in a story by an author you like. How do this character’s actions or speech move the story forward? Take notes of any techniques you’d like to try.

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