Friday, October 30, 2015 and the Pure Theory of Fiction-Writing Advice

In addition to reading and writing fiction, I have an interest in the theory of how fiction should be written. This takes a number of forms, whether in university-grade creative writing classes or more informally. Much of it consists of authors, online, telling more junior authors how to write. Some of these websites deliver great discussion pieces. Others are sales pitches for materials that, to be polite, let's just say I'd never buy.

This post is about the former.

I'm about to start writing a highly character-driven novel (no, not for NaNoWriMo). Everything will support the characters. The battles are internal, the settings are vehicles for their illustrious exploits... you can see where I'm going with this. I love online writers' tools, an old favourite being the Scriptorium's selection, so I decided to find a good plot tool to get my brain working.

I found this one, courtesy of Glen Strathy of the aptly named Its eight steps are far from exhaustive but certainly worth discussing:

1. Story Goal (what the protagonist is trying to achieve)
2. Consequence (what will happen if the protagonist doesn't achieve his/her goal)
3. Requirements (what the protagonist must do in order to achieve the goal)
4. Forewarnings (signs that presage the consequence); not merely foreshadowing...
5. Costs (things the protagonist sacrifices or endures in order to meet the goal)
6. Dividends (additional benefits the protagonist attains in pursuing the goal)
7. Prerequisites (events that must happen for the requirements to happen)
8. Preconditions (other characters' demands the protagonist has to meet in order to achieve the goal)

As you can see, this plot model is extremely protagonist-centric and goal-oriented. Whether a novel should be so focused on one character is up to the author to judge. For certain novels, like bildungsromans, the above model fits perfectly. For others, like ones that explore their full slate of characters to a greater degree, it doesn't work so well. The book I'll be writing soon has two protagonists, which made the eight steps fun. They can even bring about each other's preconditions, for example. The eight-step plot model is best for character-driven works that have a clearly defined protagonist; for setting-driven works, it'd border on useless.

While on characters, where I part company from most authors is in my desire for characters who act out of character. This makes them harder to plug into the eight-step model because they can so easily change. Yes, I'm a cold-blooded realist. We're like snakes.

This passage from Strathy gets at the point:

The key to creating believable characters is not to make them ordinary, but to make them consistent. Readers want to believe in your story. They like to imagine it could be true, even if it seems unusual. And one sign of a true story is that it doesn't contradict itself. So, even if you create characters who are unlike any human being who ever existed, the reader will accept them, if they behave in a manner consistent with the traits you have given them and the background you have invented.

Real people don't act that way. Discovering hidden sides of characters, even ones that are shocking at first. is part of what makes us human. To emphasize the context of the above passage, I'm all in favour of having characters who don't, say, start the book as mild-manned insurance salesmen and then suddenly turn into Megazord. Character consistency is a crucial part of mainstream dogma, though, so it's worth the comment. Sure, a person usually acts in certain ways, but how often is usually? A greedy character may shift investment projects while pursuing money, and every so often fail to pounce.

Back to plot, I like the way Strathy discusses endings. His four types of plot, defined by their endings, are a little on the simple side, but are good for discussion:

Comedy (achievement of goal)
Tragedy (failure to achieve goal)
Tragi-comedy (failure to achieve goal but it works out for the best)
Comi-tragedy (achievement of goal but it works out for the worst)

These fit into the eight-step model nicely, but again, may be of limited usefulness in a drastically different setting.

All told, I worry authors may merely be counselling each other on how to create the best clones, but Strathy's plot exercises are pretty fun.

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