Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday's Writing Tip: Let Your Characters Lead the Way to a Great Story

"There are, according to whichever authority you listen to, three main plots, or six, or a dozen, and everything else is just a minor variation on one of them."  Robert Masello

Today I'm sharing some great advice from Robert Masello, who says in his Robert's Rules of Writing, that every plot you come up with will  start to remind you of some other plot in a book you've read or a movie you've seen.

If that's the case, how can your story engage and excite the reader if it's just a stale, well worn plot? 

Masello suggests that rather than trying to spice up your narrative with something big, like a ticking time bomb on Air Force One, a deadly outbreak, or a policewoman who can read the mind of an ax murderer, think small.

You might think "big" is more exciting, but "small" involves characters, not plot.  If you're unsure of how the action should progress in your novel, concentrate instead on the people.

"No matter how strong a plot is," Masello writes, " won't won't amount to much...if the characters aren't engaging or memorable."

Masello says to visualize your characters.  Envision who they are, what they look like. Imagine their hopes, fears and desires, and how getting what they want will put them in conflict with others.

Some writers create elaborate biographies for their characters.  I'm not one of those, and neither is Masello. He tries to figure out what sets his characters in motion and how they wind up colliding, and what happens after the collision.

He also states that if that doesn't work, he'll introduce a new character.  I read recently, that to up the conflict, add a smoking gun.  But a smoking gun doesn't have to be a real gun toting character.  It can be a smart mouthed teenager or a jealous ex-girlfriend. 

Masello suggests that to kick start the story, throw something new into the mix, like a mean boss, flirtatious neighbor, overbearing mother, or a long lost brother.  "And," according to Masello, "because the action evolves from the peculiar interactions of characters that only you could have brought to life, and to the page, and not from some mechanical and superimposed plot, it'll sound and feel original."

Are you letting your characters lead the way?

Tweet me @: maria_mckenzie.  Thanks for visiting!


The Words Crafter said...

Great advice! While writing my nano story, my MC's husband reacted differently than I had planned, and he pretty much took the reins from my hands. He did open up some new avenues that are pretty great....So I'd say he pretty much led the way that time :)

Maria McKenzie said...

Great! Characters are so fun to write, because when they "come to life," they really do take over and lead the way!

B.E.T. said...

So far, yeah. I try not to stick too many characters in my stories and instead focus on the fun interaction they have with each other. That seems to develop them more in the long run. And writing in a first person style most of the time seems to help get inside the protagonist's head, so that seems to be working. :)

And focusing on the characters instead of plot is making the plot become more alive, shifting it better. Like recently, I was at a loss about what to do and bored with my original plan, so then one of the characters gave his core motivation to me, and ideas spiraled out from there.

a traditional housewife against the world said...

I've always let my characters run the story. I know the gist of what will happen, and why they're acting a certain way, but I let them tell me everything else.

Old Kitty said...

I love when my characters take me by the nose and lead me to places I'd never have thought to take them!!!!

Thanks for such fab advice! Take care

Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for the writing advice!

I think I'm guilty of not letting my characters go where it's natural of them to go, sometimes; I'll have them go THERE when they don't really fit THERE, and should have instead gone HERE.

Maria McKenzie said...

@B.E.T: Great point--focusing on the characters makes the plot come alive!

@CL: I'm the same way, once the characters are established, they run the show!

@Old Kitty: Characters do lead to unexpected places!

@Golden Eagle: I have that problem too, sometimes. My writing teacher says that makes the writing too cooperative. She stresses for me to make it uncooperative!

Nas said...

Thanks for the great advice. If I really let go then I find that my plot is something else and the story ended up somewhere else!

William Kendall said...

Thanks for the advice!

It's my characters driving the narrative, though I do have the "big" element engaged in the plot that I really can't write out now, what with it being a bomb that's going off. Oops!

Robyn Campbell said...

Awesome advice. Here is mine which has been dished out before, but holds true:

Put the gun on the mantle. A writing aphorism states that if one character will shoot another at the end of a story, the audience needs to see the gun on the mantle at the beginning of the story. Fill in your story with the details needed to make the climax inevitable.

Great post.

Joanna St. James said...

apparently in my writing i can get a tad too controlling. So we(the characters and i are working on a truce)

Maria McKenzie said...

@Nas: Lots of times our stories never end up the way we think they will!

@William: Your characters sound amazing from the interviews I've read! They'll make working toward the bomb much more interesting:).

@Robyn: Wonderful advice and worth hearing again!

@Joanna: Hmm...sounds like you might be making your characters too cooperative:).

Pam said...

I loved your post, concise, but with very helpful advice. In my most recent ms., the MC finds out by chance that the young man she's falling for had been engaged, and his fiancee committed suicide. Her lady's maid reveals this while she arranging the MC's hair. It came out of nowhere, seemingly from my subconscious (or did it come because I really knew the character?), but it helped give depth to the male protagonist and make him a much more sympathetic. I don't think whole books can be created from one's subconscious, but this was an exciting moment!

Natascha said...

This is a great post! I wasn't letting my characters lead the way in my current WIP, but after reading Debra Dixon's book, GMC, I'm getting better.

Stina said...

I love letting my characters lead the way. But I know them and trust them first before I let them do that. :)

Maria McKenzie said...

@Pam: Wow! That incident provides a smoking gun and a chance for a lot of great conflict!

@Las Vegas Writer: I'd like to read Goal, Motivation and Conflict!

@Stina: Great point--know them and trust them first!

Norma said...

Early in my career, my problem was that I was more concerned with plot than character. One editor dubbed me "The Master Plotter." When my own editors would tell me to stop and get into the characters' heads, I'd get frustrated. I wanted to keep things moving. It took me a while to figure out that good characterization will keep that plot moving.

Maria McKenzie said...

Awesome advice: "Good characterization will keep the plot moving."

Sometimes I want to move things along plotwise, too! But then I have to stop myself and make sure there's a reason in the character's head to get from point A to B:).