Six impossible things

Basics: Plot, part 1

By popular demand, I’m starting the “basics” posts with plot.

Plot, in its most basic version, goes like this:

  1. A character (or characters) have a problem
  2. Where something important is at stake
  3. That the character(s) care deeply about.
  4. They try to solve the problem, and
  5. Eventually succeed or fail.

So the first question to ask is: Is there a problem? What is it? Two characters happily planning a wedding do not have a problem. A character happily growing up on the family farm does not have a problem. A teenager preparing to head off to college does not have a problem. There are plenty of problems any of them could have, but none of them have a problem yet.

Note that this says nothing about what kind of problem the characters have to have. Falling in love with the right/wrong person is a perfectly good plot problem, seen mainly in Romance novels; saving the world is an equally good plot problem, seen more often in action/adventure and thriller stories; solving the murder obviously works for murder mysteries, and so on.

The second basic question about plot is: What is at stake for the main character? The dam above the town is old and may collapse in the next big storm; that’s a problem…but if the main character is from out of town and has just purchased property on the hills above the dam, that character doesn’t really have much at stake personally. If the character lives in town (or a beloved relative or romantic interest does), they have a lot more stake in the state of the dam. Or, if the character (or a relative or spouse) was responsible for mis-engineering the dam, resulting in the weakness that’s the root of the threat, the character has more at stake in this particular problem.

The third question is: How much does the main character care about the problem and what’s at stake for him/her? When Obi-Wan first tells Luke Skywalker about the threat from the Empire, Luke is sympathetic, but he doesn’t care enough to drop everything and head out to help the rebels, even though the problem is clearly important and equally clearly has a lot of potential to negatively affect his life. It’s not until his aunt and uncle are killed and it becomes obvious that the Empire is out to get him that Luke’s personal stakes are high enough and he cares enough to actually do something besides sympathize.

Lots of authors fall down at this point. They have a giant problem – the Evil Overlord is going to destroy the world! The stakes are enormous – did you miss the bit about destroying the world? Obviously, everybody is going to care about this! It must matter to the main character!

But if this were true, then every single person who finds out about this would immediately drop everything and attempt to foil the Evil Overlord. Because the destruction of the world is a huge problem that is going to negatively affect all of them (well, unless they have joined up with the Evil Overlord and trust that he’ll get his own people out before the world goes boom, which, frankly, Evil Overlords do not have a good track record of doing). And people just do not do this, not in quantity.

There are plenty of enormous real-life problems ranging from global warming to energy shortages to literacy and education to street crime and violence to epidemics. Every one of them has a relatively small group of people fighting them, and one of the biggest problems all of those groups face is getting everybody else to get off their duffs and start helping, or at least provide some money so the groups can keep up the fight.

In reality – even fictional reality – even if everyone learns that the Evil Overlord is about to destroy the world, they will not all immediately join the small group of heroes that is opposing said Evil Overlord (that’s part of why the group is always small). There are lots of reasons for this, and everyone, most explicitly including Our Hero, has one or more. In order to overcome this inertia, the main characters have to have something at stake that they, personally, care about immediately and strongly enough to get them moving.

In short, a lot of plot difficulties arise, not because of what happens, but because of why it happens…or rather, because there isn’t a strong, personal “why” to get the main characters moving. Often, the author has to start off the story by destroying all the character’s excuses for not moving – they burn down the village, kill or divorce the family, get the main character fired or framed (or framed and fired), set the villains after the main character or some family member in a way that forces the main character to react or die, etc.

This generally works for a while; the danger (for the writer) is that the character will never find his/her own reason to care about the central plot problem, and therefore will constantly be looking for ways to quit, and the writer will have to keep inventing reasons why those ways don’t work. This can be amusing if it’s done right, and it can work well if the villain has a strong enough “why” to keep him/her coming after the main character regardless of that character’s supposed retirement.  Unfortunately, it can also get tiresome for both writer and reader.

Usually, the story is stronger when the main character has something at stake that they care about, whether that’s something they hope to gain (romance, revenge, status, power, etc.) or something they already have that they want to protect (love, friendship, status, reputation, power, etc.)

That’s long enough for today, so next week I’ll talk more about the incidents that make up points #4 and 5.

  1. Thanks for this – It’s inspired me to create some more personal reason why my main character gets involved with the action (rather than just “I need to save my country”).

  2. Yes – the author needs to continually ask why the protagonist doesn’t just walk (or run) away. What binds him to the struggle?

  3. I think it’s points #4 and 5 that I generally have trouble with, so looking forward to next week!

  4. Personal motivation can be overdone too. I’ve seen plenty of films which establish that there’s an asteroid/plague/monster coming and it’s going to destroy New York, and our hero is a guy whose job is to deal with that sort of thing, which really ought to be quite enough… and our hero’s ex-wife whom he still loves lives in New York, so it’s personal. It’s over-egging the pudding.

    • Mmmm eggy pudding.

      Making it look natural is its own problem.

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