1. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Struggling with Plot

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by cmcpress, Oct 19, 2010.

    So, for four years i've been trying to plot this one novel. I have a strong setting, an idea of the principle characters, i have the overall theme (anti-consumerism and the idea of the rich-elite feeding on the poor) and an idea of their character goals - or what should happen to them at the end.

    As part of the research for this i will be travelling and working in China and i've studied Mandarin on and off for about 3 years (doing an Open university qualification this year).

    Setting - China in the near future

    Background: A selfish, hedonistic western businessman travels to China to develop newly licensed recreational smart-drugs using new technologies (including cloning) becomes embroiled in high society - mingling with the rich elite, international royalty and the movers and shakers of the political arena.

    He soon discovers a dark secret about a delicacy that is being served in private, exclusive restaurants to only those that can afford it.

    He meets and falls in love with his young free-thinking translator who is an activist - and eventually sacrifices himself in order to save her.

    Now the problems i have are mainly logistical. I'm having trouble finding a voice for the main character and being able to believably make the transition from an absolute **** to a selfless character without necessarily subjecting him to an intense ordeal.

    I'm also having trouble encapsulating what his actual story goal is.

    I'm also very wary of creating the female lead as a matrix-esque character or one of those rubbish 90's "underground" lone gunmen type figures. She is chinese, but i wanted her to play against the stereotypical Chinese female role (ie neither a supplicant semi-servant nor a kung-fu dominatrix).

    Similarly - would her story goal be to simply expose and liberate? Would her love affair with the MC be believable?

    The main antagonist is a rich playboy artist who befriends MC at first and welcomes him into this hidden world. As a representative of the pharmaceutical company MC has the resources he needs in order to procure the delicacy which he has fixated on.

    His storygoal is primarily to prevent himself and his clique of rich friends from being exposed.

    originally when i had thought of this, MC was cast as a journalist but this seemed too hackneyed and obvious.

    Part of the purpose of the novel is to be taken into the pharmacists world, in a Huxleyesque way to show a series of vignettes based around the horrors contained therein.
     
  2. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    He's accustomed to - perhaps warms to - the excesses and darker aspects of capitalism in a culture which, to an extent, champions the individual... but a rampant capitalism let loose amid a culture (still) dominated by notions of communitarianism might give rise to horrors that even he cannot stomach.

    And these horrors will be quotidian - will be about him every day as he's driven to work etc etc

    These will play on him. His love affair will soften him. Small gestures of kindness will lead to bigger ones. The capable person in him will begin finding solutions for small problems and then for larger ones.

    All entirely believable so long as he is not too ghastly in the first place.
     
  3. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    The characters should come to you when you start writing - just go for it and she should start turning out one way or the other - not, I mean, to those particular stereotypes, but to whatever character she is meant to have. You can't really plot something like that. Just pick a different stereotype and use that as a basis, even something as simple as "secretly a bit nerdy" and just learn her from how you write her.

    Same with the MC's story goal - you have a lot of plot elements, but it's only when you see him interacting with them that some small detail might become relevant and suddenly make it work. Maybe he sees one tiny example of this, that or the other and it will just help you to see how he sees the situation, and from there how he's going to work through it. It helps that you actually know what's going to happen - I usually fumble around in the dark until I find a plot point that the character feels strongly on.

    Um, really, all I can say is just start writing some scenes and see what happens. It doesn't matter if you don't know all the little personal details to being with, because they are what emerge when you write - that's why you're having so much trouble plotting them.
     
  4. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    I should make clear that these are my opinions. That said, I stand by them.

    Okay. Let's break this down into main problems and sub-problems.

    First, you don't have a clear idea of what your characters want. You have a few events in mind, but because your characters' motivations remain undiscovered, you have no sure way of linking the events believably. Without a set of goals, your character might as well be an extra in a movie -- a bland image that blends easily into the background. This is also why you are having trouble capturing the character's voice, because in dialogue or character-centered narration, the character's views, experiences, goals, preferences and general outlook are exposed to the reader.

    Second, you've put the cart before the horse in that you've got the themes before the plot and the story's structure ("series of vignettes based around the horrors contained therein") before the story's characters have been worked out. Because you haven't decided how to portray the Chinese translator, you can't know how to structure sections that contain her as a significant character. Because you have fixed on themes, you may be taking shortcuts (unconsciously) in character development, which is essential for your plot.

    Now, the solution depends on you. What do you want from this story? Are you looking for an enjoyable, riveting read, or for something more allegorical and character-shallow like Brave New World? Do you want to make money from this book, or are you writing it primarily to show the evils of the self-centered corporate community? When your readers have finished your book, what do you want them to take away from it?

    Depending on your priorities, you have your work cut out for you.

    Stories are driven by their characters. There are exceptions; part of the appeal of 1984 or Brave New World is that the setting is so altered, so alien, that readers are drawn in. But even there, the characters must feel real, they must have motivations, fears, desires and prejudices.

    So your first goal should probably be to sit down with some sheets of paper (or a blank Word document) and spend the next few hours figuring out your characters.

    I don't mean a character profile sheet with silly boxes like "How was the character's childhood? What is their education level?" No, I'm talking about things at their core -- what do they want? In the past few years, what have their main goals been, and how close have they come to achieving them? What resources do they have? What are they afraid of? What are their main traits -- are they quick to act (for good or ill), are they socially awkward, are they obsessed with money because they grew up poor, are they patient or impatient, are they wiseasses or self-centered, are they unhappy or content with who they are?

    And write down anything important that comes to mind. Iconic lines of dialogue. A character description, if you haven't already worked that out. (You've had four years to work on this story; presumably you have some idea of how they act, how they carry themselves.)

    None of what you write is set in stone. You can change it later, if you want. But right now you have a serious, book-stopping problem, which is this: Stories and novels revolve around the interactions of their characters, and you don't yet have any characters. You have some cardboard cutouts which you've labeled, Main Character, Antagonist, Supporting Character. When you pull their strings, they walk around and talk, but they aren't developed enough to fool anyone into thinking they are human.

    So develop them. Figure out what they want, how they plan to get there, and how those plans will change as events unfold.

    Until you do, you'll remain stuck.
     
  5. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Thanks - great reply - definitely started some chains of thought.

    Thanks, I think you're right to a certain degree. I'm new to writing so i'm finding my way.

    Don't get me wrong - although i've been "working on" it for 4 years it certainly hasn't been continuously - maybe "had the idea 4 years ago" might be more correct. It's been started, and abandoned twice - and mainly because i don't think i had the experience or knowledge to be able to tackle it.

    Although i've referred to MC, Antagonist they all have working names (some of which i'm not happy with) but you're right at this stage they are cardboard characters.

    Now that some of the research is falling into place, it's a matter of building up those skills. I am certainly not a natural writer like i'm sure some of you guys are.

    As for the choice between Brave New World and a rich character driven piece i don't see why they would be mutually exclusive. Surely it's possible to write a piece that has a satisfying plot and a wider subtext?

    Part of the question is really - is understanding what a story goal is and how it contrasts with a characters motivations?

    For example MC's initial motivation may be that he wants to become rich for example. But his motivations change as his relationship changes.

    So the character development is the change from a selfish character to a selfless one.
     
  6. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    It's entirely possible. But the characters are what drive a story. Brave New World isn't horrifying until you see what it does to the people who live in the society. The selfish, privileged, "We have money so screw the rules" society you plan to create will be only mildly scary on its own; it becomes far more terrifying when the characters get involved. Work on the characters; all else flows from there.

    I'm not sure what you're asking. If by "story goal" you mean, "I want this character to change from an uncaring businessman into someone who is willing to take risks, both social and physical, to do the right thing," then it is a very, very broad outline. It's like if you want to go on a trip and you decide, "I want to travel from Ipswitch to Plymouth." It's a starting point, but to actually get anywhere, you have to do more. You have to look at maps, get a vehicle, fill it with petrol, check that the boot has a spare tyre in it just in case, and maybe pack other supplies -- a change of clothing if you'll be there overnight, some spare bills so you can buy meals at your destination, and so on and so forth.

    The same general principles apply when you write. In order to actually show your character's change in personality, motivation, or outlook, you must first discover his current motivations and outlook.

    Your character is a simulated human being. He or she has foibles, blind spots, habits, gaps in knowledge, goals both grand ("Getting an unlikely promotion to the Board of the company") and mundane ("Confirm business arrangements on the international deal for my boss," "Visit some landmarks in China while I'm there," "Buy a souvenir for my brother").

    At the start of the book, your character will have a set of goals and a corresponding set of reasons for pursuing those goals. Some of those reasons will be personal -- maybe your character's brother collects porcelain figurines, so that's the sort of souvenir your character will buy -- and some of them, particularly ones relating to a job or a business, will be less personal and more based on a sense of honor, responsibility, or dependability. Your character wants to think well of himself, and he will do some fairly unpleasant things (sitting in meetings, being polite to a complete asshat) in order to live up to his image of himself as a responsible corporate worker.

    Whoever your character is at the start of the book is the character you have to work with. Your job as the writer is to set up a series of events that will slowly change the character until he finally risks his life for the interpreter at the end. These events might be small -- meeting the antagonist at a business meeting, hearing from the interpreter how children of poor families have gone missing, finding out that the antagonist is using his wealth to bribe officials to look the other way -- but over the chapters, those small events will build up.

    Your character will find himself dealing in unpleasant events. Perhaps his corporate dealings are providing some of the money being used to bribe the local law enforcement. Perhaps he finds himself torn between the antagonist, who might very well be influential in the main character's circles, and the interpreter, whose young cousin has gone missing and may have been kidnapped or purchased. After a while, the character will have to face a terrible decision, and the choice he makes will lead him to face down the antagonist in order to get the interpreter's cousin back. (Or whatever the ultimate scenario is; presumably the interpreter is involved in the issue somehow, or the main character wouldn't be sacrificing himself for her.)

    Maybe the main character wins. Maybe he wins, but he dies in the process -- or loses his health, or his job. Maybe he is able to save the interpreter, but only a few of the guilty conspirators are thrown in jail and the rest flee unharmed.

    The point is that your character, in order to fulfill the "story goal" you've developed, must change realistically through a series of events that test his mettle, widen his worldview, and challenge him either physically or morally (or both).

    And to do that, you much first know your character, what he wants, and why he wants those things. It's as essential as knowing your starting point before you attempt to travel toward your destination.

    So that's the difference. A story goal tells you which map to look at when you open your atlas. Character motivations tell you which roads to take, what the weather will be like, whether there is construction work that will delay you, and precisely how to navigate from the main roads to the hotel. It's more work to plan out the second way, but you're more likely to get to your destination with a minimum of hassle.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A story concept means nothing. I can tell you now, it has all been done before. What matters is how you write it, the characterization, the flow, the imagery, all of it.

    There's no benefit in asking what other people think of the concept! They'll either say,"Sounds great," or, "it sounds like a ripoff of..."

    If the idea stirs you, write it. Then ask people what they think of the final story. After they tell you what they don't like about it, revise it, usually several times, until you're happy with it or until you throw up your hands and say the hell with it.

    Please read What is Plot Creation and Development? That should help you with the dynamics to put life into the story.
     
  8. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Hi Cogito - actually this post wasn't intended to be "what do you think of the concept". And in fact was after reading the "what is plot".. post that i posted here as i was confused to a degree as to how this would relate.

    In relation to your post

    actor: Robert Glass (working name for Main Character)
    goal: this is the area i'm having trouble with.
    motivation: again - another issue
    opposition: Kenji Suzuki - (working name for Antagonist - based on Japanese author)

    actor: Kenji Suzuki
    goal: to indulge in the delicacy and to prevent RG from exposing his proclivities
    motivation: self preservation
    opposition: RG and LWF

    actor: Lin Wu Fei
    Goal: to reveal the horrors at S-146
    motivation: Compassion
    Opposition: KS

    Now i can understand LWF's motivation - even if i don't have a strong impression of who SHE is - but RG is the sticking point. I need RG in order to gain access to S-146 and to KS - and to a certain degree i can imagine LWF using RG in order to gain access also.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Elucidating what the elements of plot are in your story will help you tune it. You can modulate the motivation and opposition to increase or decrease tension, and of course if there is no goal, that plot will have no sense of direction.

    Motivation and Opposition are forces. Self-preservation is more of an Objective than a Motivation. Self-preservation doesn't really move you toward a goal, although if you define it more clearly, it might. The existence of an antidote for a poison in your system is a motivation to acquire that antidote (the goal). That the antidote will only be effective if you take it within the next three hours modulates the motivation, increasing the tension.
     
  10. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Right, great, thanks - so a revised plot could be:

    actor: Robert Glass (working name for Main Character)
    goal: To escape the clutches of KS and protect the life of LWF
    motivation: KS is a dangerous man who threatens the life of the woman RG loves
    opposition: Kenji Suzuki - (working name for Antagonist - based on Japanese author)

    actor: Kenji Suzuki
    goal: to indulge in the delicacy and to prevent RG from exposing his proclivities
    motivation: exposing his proclivities would result in him being thrown in jail (or worse)
    opposition: RG and LWF

    actor: Lin Wu Fei
    Goal: to reveal the horrors at S-146
    motivation: She is morally outraged by the goings on there.
    Opposition: KS
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Remember that the opposition is of the same form as a motivation. An opposition can be in itsaelf a plot, but it needs to be expressed as an action or obstacke for the actor.

    The motivation and the opposition are opposing forces acting upon the actor. The net sum determines whether the actor is getting closer to the goal or being pushed further away.

    For example, what about Kenji is opposing Robert's progress toward his goal?

    Protecting is not really a goal, nor is escaping the clutches of KS, unless KS is actually holding Robert captive. Protecting is an ongoing activity unless it is protection from a specific threat. A goal needs to be something that can be achieved at a particular point in time. Protecting someone from a specific threat (e.g. a threatened assassination sometime in the next three days) is a goal. Being a lifelong bodyguard is not, because there can be no way to measure progress toward it.

    This is why you are having difficulty turning the plots into a story. Plot elements need to be fairly specific in order to make the plot dynamic. The actor is driven closer or farther from a goal at any moment by the time-varying tension between motivation and opposition. The goal should be sharply defined rather than a fuzzy indistinct cloud of goodness, so the actor knows when he or she has arrived at it.

    In addition to the principal plots that characterize the overall story progress, there are typically smaller plots (subplots) that come and go, and that contribute to the story's progress.
     
  12. Jones6192
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    Jones6192 Member

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    I'm probably no help here, but I usually start with characters, and then think of a situation that forces them to either confront their own way of thinking or become a better person, in which to drop them in. See Spielberg's War of the Worlds for an example of what I mean: A divorced dad forced to take care of his children, the same day aliens attack Earth; jackass father now has to put aside his instinctive cowardly nature to rescue his kids. That's great drama. It's up to you exactly how well they executed it in that movie, but whatever...
     

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