Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Weekend Writer: Give Your Character Something To Want--Just How Useful Is That?

Several years ago when I started thinking that maybe I'd find writing a lot easier if I studied up on plot, I attended a plotting talk at a weekend retreat. The speaker, a writer who had published only one book that had won a very big award, described a well-known system for creating plots. She said to create a plot by first giving your main characters something to want. Then keep it from them.

I didn't walk away feeling I'd experienced a revelation. But I have been thinking about this workshop ever since. It took a while, but I finally decided I didn't see how this system could be particularly useful.

First off, I don't see this as a method for generating plots. Remember, plot is the series of causal steps that make up a story. Do we see any causal relationships here? At all? Instead, I see the give-them-something-to-want-and-keep-them-from-getting-it concept as a formula. It will create a story about someone overcoming adversity (the keep-them-from-getting-it part) in order to live a dream/achieve happiness/an uplifting ending (the give-them-something-to-want part). There's nothing wrong with a formula story, if it's a formula you happen to enjoy. But that's a long way from a plot.

Imagine you are a writer who really does enjoy reading and writing stories about overcoming adversity. Then imagine you've just been told to give your main character something to want and then keep it from him or her. Even if you've already done all the work we've discussed these last few months so that you are close to a story idea about someone overcoming adversity--a story being something that happens to somebody and its significance--won't you be left wondering, What? What do I give him or her to want? If you haven't gotten to the point of a true story idea, won't you really be stumped? And then, okay, you've come up with something for him or her to want. How do you come up with a reason your character can't get what he or she wants?

That was one of my first thoughts after that workshop--Where is this stuff supposed to come from?

Many times, when writers say they have trouble with plot, they mean they have trouble coming up with material. All the give-them-something-to-want-and-keep-them-from-getting-it system does is tell us to come up with material, which is the very thing we have trouble doing.

There has to be some other ways to do this.

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