1. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Should Character or plot development, come first?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Ryan Elder, Jul 18, 2015.

    I want to get better at writing but I often find myself with this problem when trying to create a story. I read a lot of books on writing and as much as I can from gurus. I read The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, and he said something that really stuck out at me, that other writers have not touched on much.

    He said that when you come up with the premise line, you have to come up with what you think would be the best ending to that premise line, and you have to do it pretty close, so you can build the rest of your story into that.

    I agree that that seems to make sense, and a lot of stories seem to have that.

    However, when I have my work criticized by other people, one criticism I often get is that the characters behave illogically in order to get the predetermined ending I want... And that is true, since I came up with the ending first, after coming up with the premise, the ending is already predetermined.

    This is the paradox, because my characters are not allowed to make the most logical and natural decisions in their quests, if the ending is predetermined. They have to do what it takes to get to that predetermined ending. You could change the characters around to make it so their behavior is more natural but there is only so much you could change about a character before it becomes forced, or before you feel that their depth and themes are compromised within the change, just to have the ending.

    I also tried taking an opposite writing approach and came up with the best characters I could and gave them everything I wanted, and have them behave in the most naturalistic ways to what they are. I did this without coming up with an ending and just let them play a chess game at each other, without knowing what is going to come.

    However, I find that doing this approach can lead to an underwhelming or anticlimatic ending. I had this conversation with other aspiring writers, and used Die Hard as a recent example, as to how some of John McClane's actions were illogical and they said that if McClane made the most logical decisions, the movie would be over in 40 minutes.

    So you see this debate going on even in the professional storytelling world, when it comes to making the reader believe your story, how do you come up with a predetermined ending, but at the same time, build into that ending without having a character plot hole along the way? Is it possible?
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2015
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  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Characters don't have to be logical - they have to be believable. If I was mugged - logically I might just hand over my money, but me being me and depending on my mood I might just belt the guy with my purse.
    But someone watching would need a bit of a set up to understand my motives. If I was writing out the scene I could have myself squint with rage and think, I ain't handing over a damn cent, I got plans for that money and they don't include some fool in a ski mask. Whammo.
    Set the reader up to understand why your character is making a decision. What's his motivation? Is he fueled by rage, jealousy, greed, love, passion, remorse. I find that most of the time when my mouth is dropping over a character's actions it's because I don't understand why he's behaving that way.

    Whoops I forgot to answer your question. It's hard to say what comes first. I let character develop by scene so I have more plot figured out than character but nothing is concrete and I don't have all the answers when I write. I let new decisions or actions by the characters shift scenes even though I'm essentially working towards the same goal/ending. It helps to develop the character and complicate the plot. Never make it too easy on your characters to make it to their goal.
     
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  3. Lea`Brooks
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    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've recently found that over-developing your characters before the plot hurts the story more than it helps. Let me give a for instance.

    I have one urban fantasy that follows two characters. Since the story was heavily character driven, I developed them first. The girl was sweet, naive, and did all she could to avoid conflict. The guy was harsh, cold, and closed off from the other characters. Seemed great! She would learn to be stronger through him, and he would soften up because of her. But then I started writing. And my girl needed something very important from my guy. That's where I came into my problem. She was far too sweet to demand it. And he was far too cold to offer it willingly. So I was stuck. Because this was the driving scene of the story. And without it, it couldn't progress. So I scrapped my planned characters and let then write themselves. My girl turned snarky and opinionated. And my guy is.. Well, pretty much the same. lol

    Another story I'm working on, I didn't plan the characters at all. I had a beginning point, a midpoint, and an endpoint. And all of my characters are developing perfectly, without hindering the story, and there's still a strong ending.

    So from these two experiences, I think it's best to let the characters drive. Set your major plot points that you need to happen, and then let the characters tell you how they get from point a to point b. If they have a solid goal, something driving them forward, there should be no reason why you'd have to jeopardize your ending for realistic characters.
     
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  4. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Any author/expert/guru who says you have to do anything is someone to ignore. Write your story in whatever manner gets it finished. Me, I think of a character in need of a situation, or a situation in need of a character, and start writing. How it ends - well, I'll find out when I get there.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you want a tightly plotted story, I think that you have to treat it like a puzzle, changing and changing things until you get lucky and finally find a plot and characters that make mutual sense. If you find yourself twisting logic and motivation in knots, it's time to back up and try again, even if it's for the sixty-seventh time.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Generally, I would agree with that.

    As to the rest of it, there is (and I apologize to forum members who have read this in earlier postings) a framework of planning that I stumbled on while working on the novel I am currently trying to get published: I call it the Picnic Table Method. If you have ever tried to assemble a picnic table (or any other piece of furniture), there is always an admonition in the instructions not to tighten all the nuts and bolts until the very end. I apply that to writing. It is a known phenomenon that, as a writer pursues his story, new ideas will occur to him/her that impact his/her characters in unforseen ways, and the characters undergo subtle changes because of it. At the same time, as the writer writes more about the characters, the characters change in subtle ways that impact on the flow of the story. Therefore, it is best to be open to these changes and take advantage of the new ideas that occur to you. So, don't tighten the bolts until the very end.

    But, one other piece of advice. You say you have been trying to "learn a lot from the gurus." That's fine, but on this question, what have you seen in writing that you've found to be compelling? Every story has its own internal logic, and that's the logic to which you have to be true. It's not just getting a character from Point A to Point B, it's making sure that the character's journey is consistent with everything you've told the reader about the character. So, for example, if the character is a quiet, unassuming young man who ultimately saves the galaxy, you need to show him having a certain degree of independence in his nature to start with, curious about things beyond his immediate world, and brave enough to follow his instincts. You have to show him learning enough of the skills he'll need in order to fight the forces of empire. You have to show others willing to support him, able to impart to him the skills and knowledge he needs, and then, at last, you need to show him rising to the occasion.

    Good luck.
     
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  7. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    In Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, he talks about two things that will shed light on what's your asking about: the starting line-up and the climax. I've never read Truby, but I'm guessing that when he says 'come up with the ending first,' he's talking about the climax.

    Climax is, roughly speaking, a key decision that protagonist makes that puts him into the most trouble he's been in during the entire story. Swain maps out the climax, gives you the key points that need to be covered and gives an example (not a great one, but you'll at least see what he's talking about).

    The starting line-up is where you decide who the protagonist is, why the outcome of the story is important to him/her, who's opposing (the antagonist) and other stuff like that.

    With a well-thought-out starting line-up and climax, your characters will always make decisions that make sense to the reader. I highly recommend Swain's book.
     
  8. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    This may or may not be useful. However for what it's worth the answer is neither. They should grow together. But of any good plot is the heroes journey, and this journey should have an impact on the hero. So he starts out in one place and ends somewhere else, just as the plot starts in one place and ends somewhere else.

    Personally I am the purest pantster when it comes to writing, so at the start of a book I'll have probably a scene and a roughly drawn character. The scene will lead to questions which are what I frame the plot around as I carry on. The character will go with the plot and at some points I'll go back and rewrite aspects of the character, while at others I'll rewrite the plot to match the character's likely actions.

    As far as your guru's go and their books I would say forget them. I have said this before and I'll no doubt say it again. The most precious book you can ever have to help you with learning your craft is the one you're writing.

    And all the rules and such that the gurus can give you are at best suggestions, because the truth is that there are no rules in writing - just one question you always have to ask - does this work? Ignore all the crap about passive and active voices. Dump the dross about infodumps. Scrap everything else. Simply ask yourself and those you consider have good opinions - does this work?

    As an example consider that I have on my shelves both Patterson's Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, as well as Lord of the Rings. And I can tell you without the slightest hesitation that the first is truly terrible in my view and the second trilogy is brilliant. And it has nothing to do with writing style or grammar or following rules. It's purely that the first one does not work at all, and the second works perfectly.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  9. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. Well I have come up with four different endings, and I am find myself not really satisfied with any of them. They are fine, okay, but feel like they could be better, or more interesting, or something needs a change. I came up with the four different endings, after other readers told me that my original ending doesn't work as well. Mainly in the ending, the MC wants revenge on the villain, and he forms an angry lynch mob to go after the villain. I was told by some others that they do not find this plausible, or they do but they think it's too much of a plot device.

    The MC is the only character with prior development, where the rest of the lynch mob, is just other characters who share his anger towards the villain, but are not given prior development. I was told that they are just a plot device or they find it hard to believe he could form a mob. But other works of fiction have done this, like Frankenstein, with the angry villagers, having no prior development much, or the movie M, with the homeless people willing to partake in a kidnapping and be an accessory to murder, without prior development.

    I feel that these minor characters do not need prior development and it's okay to have a plot device, as long as it's minor characters just so long as you understand them. Unless I am wrong, and I have sacrified depth by not doing so?

    But I still feel that the original climax holds together better than all the new ones I tried. What do you think? Can the original work with the lynch mob, or do I have to use something else, even if I feel that something is missing?
     
  10. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    That's about motivation. Your minor characters don't need fleshing out with backstories etc. But what they do need is a reason for forming a mob. Those who went after Frankenstein's misunderstood monster Adam - did so because they were scared and together they were strong. They didn't do it because someone went to them and said "let's form a mob."

    That's your question to answer. Why do they want to kill the villain?

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Well the trouble with arranging a lynch mob is, what is your date? Frankenstein was in a time when lynch mobbing wouldn't be unheard of, ditto with M. Even into the 30's lynch mobbing was taking place like once a day. A lot fueled by the organized groups and small towns where everyone knew everyone so turning each other in wouldn't have been easy. But if the story is in present day that's a bit of a hard sell. You have to hint that these people are a bit sketchy, drunk, or close knit. Put yourself in their shoes, what would it take for you to agree to do harm to someone and put yourself on the line?
     
  12. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. My story is in modern times and the mob wants to go after a serial killer who has gotten away with murder too many times, and the police cannot nail him. But they are not drunk or sketchy, they are just normal joe citizens, but friends. Most of them are in law enforcement, so I do not want to make them sketchy or drunk.
     
  13. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ryan, I think that it's time to reconsider your fundamental concept. It's wrapped in layers and layers of implausibility.

    I would suggest that you sit down and figure out the scenes that you want--because my impression is that this is about scenes. For example, you seem to have your heart set on an angry mob. Why not start with that--"want angry mob"--and then build a plot that can plausibly lead to one? In modern days, angry mobs seem to form not due to individual criminals, but due to government action--for example, the recent demonstrations resulting from police shootings.

    What do you want? Angry mob. Policeman caught in a gray area of morals. Policeman with an unwilling similarity to the criminal that he's hunting. Etcetera. I recommend starting with that list and building a whole new plot from scratch, with a constant view to plausibility and in-character actions.
     
  14. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. I have though of a few ideas of how to make the story more plausible, but is it possible to make a story plausible without it being underwhelming or anticlimatic? I mean the main character can just kidnap the bad guy at gunpoint, march him out to the woods, shoot him and bury him, but... it just feels anticlimatic, wouldn't you say? I mean it's plausible, and there are no plot holes, but it just feels like something more should happen, or maybe it's just me.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's absolutely possible to make A story plausible without it being underwhelming or anticlimactic. There have been hundreds of such stories written. It may not be possible for your specific story. That's why I'm suggesting that you reconsider the ENTIRE plot. From beginning to end. So we don't even know that there's one specific bad guy.

    I'm suggesting that you figure out what dramatic scenes and emotions and personal conflicts that you want, and then start the planning of the plot over. From scratch.
     
  16. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. I want to keep the villain since the premise is built around him. I think that the premise is keep-able, it's just the last half I am stuck on where to go, after the first attempts at last halfs did not work.

    Basically the villain gets away with his crimes, and the police have to start again from scratch. And then, that's it, I am not sure what to do after, since every idea I have had is either too implausible, or too underwelming. But I feel that the first half, the investigation and the villain winning, holds together well, and I can keep it.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think that the villain that the police are utterly helpless to catch, but that they could catch if they did...something that they're unwilling to do, is a plausible premise.
     
  18. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. Why would they be unwilling to though, since the police are always interested in catching serial killers?
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's my point. In one of your scenarios, the police are helpless to catch the villain, but your character is going to manipulate his boss to catch him. So apparently the police are not helpless to catch him. And he's well enough known for an angry mob to attack him, but somehow he manages to keep anonymous enough to continue finding victims. I don't see plausibility.
     
  20. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. However the main character manipulates the boss in the climax to catch him. The villain gets off for his crimes at the end of the first half. The cops are helpless at this point. However by the time the MC manipulates his boss, I need new developments to occur. Once I come up with the new developments and how the MC can use them, then I can make the rest of the story work. The police are helpless until the new developments come along for the MC to use, and that is the time gap between the last half and the climax that I have to fill, if that makes sense.
     
  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    And why does the MC's boss choose to ignore those new developments? Why can the MC achieve those developments while the police are apparently choosing to just sit around having tea? Why doesn't the boss bother to take the trouble to catch a serial killer, why does he ignore the killer until he's blackmailed into doing something about him?

    Your whole fictional world is apparently sitting still, utterly idle, and the only actions in that world are those of the MC and the villain. That's just not plausible.
     
  22. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. Well that's what I need in the new developments. I need them to be legally ignorable, until the boss is manipulated into following up on them.
     
  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    And why would his boss ignore them? "Well, there's a serial killer, and I joined the police force to chase criminals, and catching the serial killer would be great for my career, so I'm just going to ignore all this evidence and keep sitting here playing Pac-Man."

    Why?
     
  24. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    "And why would his boss ignore them? "Well, there's a serial killer, and I joined the police force to chase criminals, and catching the serial killer would be great for my career, so I'm just going to ignore all this evidence and keep sitting here playing Pac-Man."

    Why?"

    That's the reason I am stuck. I would have to write it so that the new development has a problem in it, that the boss couldn't persue for some reason. So the MC will then have to manipulate him into doing so.
     
  25. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    And why do you need the MC to manipulate him? What is the core emotional/dramatic need that is being served by all these highly implausible plot elements? If you tunnel down to that core need, you can probably serve it with something more plausible.

    Is it for the MC to drag someone else into his world of gray morals?
    Is it for the MC to challenge authority?

    What is it?
     

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