Some cry contrivance. Others lament convention. And even more bemoan the influence of the ideologue. Writers will do anything, it seems, to avoid understanding what it is they are really doing.
As my story consultancy grows, I begin to witness patterns in behavior. Writers act like other writers. They safeguard themselves from the pain of unraveling what they know about story by hiding behind Aristotle, claims of artistic integrity, or the stifling weight of an outline. Their most consistent mistake rests in the assumption that the main plot of a story (or “A” story line) is simply the framework that all the really important stuff hangs from; that character and relationships reign supreme.
It’s all important stuff.
True, some writers emphasize character over the machinations of the story world at large, but in the end both still need to be present in order for the Audience to make sense of what has happened.
The Interlocking of Character and Plot
Character cannot claim prominence over plot as both exist simultaneously within a piece of narrative, regardless of Author’s intent. Character represents a subjective context on the matters at hand, while plot portrays an objective context. One can’t simply cast the other unimportant because they find it unnecessary any more than they can disavow general relativity because stars are pretty. A subjective context presupposes an objective one.
The Dramatica theory of story exposes the difference between the objective view and subjective with its concept of the four throughlines. The Main Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline manage the subjective view of the narrative while the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline handle the objective. Writers who write from the heart often leave out these last two. They may pay lip service to an Overall Story Throughline by casting the Main Character into the role of Protagonist and claiming the events “his” story, but by doing so fail to properly explore this throughline by centering on one character’s point-of-view.1
That’s not objective.
Objective sees Goals and Consequences. It sees Protagonist and Antagonists and Limits and Plot Points.2 Requirements, Forewarnings, Costs and Dividends. Success or Failure determine its Outcome and each and every character holds itself at arm-length, described only by its function within this view.
Many writers consider this larger perspective to be “unnecessary” or just the “MacGuffin” or mechanical” or “too limiting” to their work. Writing this perspective offers little in terms of emotional expressionism. The fun part of writing—the reason many take to pen in the first place—lies in jumping into the character’s heads, becoming them, feeling what they’re feeling and working towards communicating the emotions they feel inside. Writers such as these wish to express their fanciful associations to the text.
That’s the fun stuff.
Objective, overall—these are not the words of a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve or one who wears his heart on the page. But they are the words of a writer who enjoys mastery over his or her own text.
An Objective Look at Things
Conflict arises as a result of inequity. Everything before the story = equity. Everything after the story starts = inequity. The first “event” upsets the equity of things and compels one or another to bring about resolution.3 If that person is successful then the story has resolution and equity returns. If that person fails, then the story ends with inequity.
That person is the Protagonist of the story.
The concept of the Protagonist exists as a shorthand term to describe the character pushing for this resolution. The Antagonist operates as a shorthand term for character(s) preventing this resolution. One works for the Goal and successful resolution. One works against the Goal and would prefer the Consequences instead. Stories without these two forces lack narrative drive.
The Slice of Life Cop-Out
Stories that fail to provide these two alternative views cannot claim to be stories. Whether a slice-of-life tone poem (The Tree of Life) or a simple tale designed to satiate the senses (any Transformers movie), narrative that offers one offers offers only a part. From the perspective of an artist living present within the spirit with which gives him or her rise, this approach fulfills. Understand, though, that Audiences desire more and may not be as forgiving or appreciative of only one-half of the story. They expect and deserve a complete story.
Every audience member brings with them a mind to interpret and interpolate the narrative in question. Every mind operates under the same biological and biochemical process. Though our individual capabilities might fluctuate, our mechanism of problem-solving functions the same. Conflict resolution requires context and an appreciation of the difference between subjective and objective. If a story only provides one side of the story, the mind rebels, walks out muttering something about “story holes” or “false characters” or simply “a bad story.” Audiences expect some greater context to appreciate the relationships between the characters.
The Great Models of Narrative
All great narratives work this way. The external conflict generated by the inequity of the story reflects itself in the juxtaposition between the smaller inter-personal relationship between two characters and the larger objectified relationships between all the characters.
In Pride and Prejudice you have Elizabeth and Darcy and their romantic relationship set against the social challenges of 19th century England’s upper class values tow marriage and choice. One can see the problems of the Wickhams, the Collins, the Bingleys, and, of course, the Bennets more than simply backdrop for romance. Their actions compliment and inform the conflict between the choices and actions taken by the two beginning a new love. Where would Elizabeth’s struggle with first impressions and temptation be were it not for her youngest sister giving in to the same?
Comparable conflicts lie within Romeo & Juliet. The interpersonal relationship between the two takes center stage, but Shakespeare also manages to weave in the war between the Capulets and the Montagues. Misplaced expectations and a rush to resolve intolerable circumstances describe the personal as well as the extra-personal. Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Mercutio need be present for the relationship between the star-crossed lovers to carry with it some greater meaning.
And then finally we have the greatest novel of the 20th century—To Kill a Mockingbird. Here one can see the prejudice and racism that comes with the Southern murder trial of a black man reflected in the interpersonal prejudice between a young girl and the boogeyman across the street. The genius of that novel lies in the positioning of these two views. One sees Atticus the Protagonist trying to resolve the inequity perpetuated by Antagonist Bob Ewell and others: the false accusation of rape against Tom Robinson. But one also gets to experience racism and prejudice from the inside by taking the journey with Scout and her shedding of preconceptions in regards to Boo Radley.
Audiences need both the subjective and the objective to emotionally understand and ultimately make sense of the conflict presented to them.
The objective view of a story sounds mechanical and boring and formulaic and prescriptive. It is. And it is so because it is, in fact, OBJECTIVE. This view is mechanical and boring and prescriptive.4 The writer must assume an objective view of conflict resolution and ask Who are the players? What are they motivated by? How does it all play out in the end?
Key Questions to Ask When Writing this Perspective
- When does the story actually start? When does inequity upset the balance of things?
- What sort of goal would resolve this inequity and bring everything back into balance?
- Who works towards this resolution? Who works against it?
- How does the conflict resolve itself?
Those familiar with Dramatica will know the exact answer to each and every one of these questions. The first finds itself in the Story Driver. The second in the Story Goal. The third in the Archetypal Characters known as the Protagonist and Antagonist and finally the last in the Story Outcome.
Those who don’t only have themselves to blame for a story that lacks direction or fails to capture and engage the minds of their Audience.
The Search for Meaning in the Meaninglessness
Great narrative grants us both a subjective experience and an objective experience simultaneously. Stories give us something we can’t find in real life. One can’t be simultaneously inside their own head while also hovering high above watching the actions unfold. The juxtaposition between these two views provides the meaning of the experience—a synthesis that exists between the words and between the individual frames of film. Real life, unfortunately, has no meaning. Until we create some objective context from which to appreciate it (religion, nationalism, or any -ism for that matter), everything means nothing.
Stories offer more.
A writer makes his or her story fuller by adding this all-important layer of the objective view. Fear not heart-driven writer, for undertaking this approach does not take away from the very important relationship story. Stories require both character AND plot. Audiences need that greater context that includes the two principal characters AND the rest of the cast in order to make sense of what it is they feel. Writers want their characters and the relationship between them to mean something; providing an objective view and a greater understanding of when things happen and how they resolve grants an Audience an answer as to why they should experience the story.
The Mini-Movie Method takes this approach. By collapsing character and plot into one context, the central character must undergo a series of “plans” regardless of the true problem at hand. ↩︎
This first “event” need not be an action. It could be a series of actions OR it could be a decision or series of deliberations. The Inciting Incident of a story is not something that simply happens to the characters. ↩︎
Well, it doesn’t have to be boring. But from a writer’s perspective, actually writing it can be. ↩︎