Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Quest for Story: #2 -- Forging the Chains

(Photo by  Chris J. Fries - 2012: Tangle of Chains)

(This is post #2 in a quest to define what creates "a good story."  The kickoff of this quest is HERE.)

Last time I posted about how important character is to a good story.  In my opinion, character is the most critical element -- for me, any good story must be anchored by a great character (you can read the full discussion about character HERE).

So if I have a great character, is that enough to make a good story?

Suppose I have a complex, fascinating, and dynamic character that any reader can bond with.  What if I then make a story about a nice quiet day in that character's life.  Maybe on that day, he's off work and decides to sleep in late.  Then he gets up, makes some toast, maybe reads the paper, perhaps watches the game on TV, and probably snoozes in his comfy chair during the middle of the game.  Later, he showers, warms up some leftovers for dinner, and then spends the rest of the evening reading a book before eventually nodding off.

End of story.

Think this rough outline will ever become a good story, regardless of how great the potential in the character?  Can we end our story quest with just character?

Absolutely not.

There has to be more to the story than just a compelling character.  There has to be events of significance which happen to that character -- events which have emotional impact, events which elicit reaction and involvement from the character, events which pull the character forward into a sequential chain of interlocked cause and effect that, in the process, sweeps up the reader and fully immerses them in the drama.

These interlocked chains of events are element #2 in what makes a good story:

Plot

To many people, plot IS the story.  Aristotle considered plot to be the centerpiece of drama -- it was the first element in his six components of tragedy (but he did put character at number two, so he also realized that no plot happens in a vacuum).  

Boiled down to its essence, the old 'genre' versus 'literary' debate really is about which is more important to a story: character or plot?  Literary styles tend to emphasize character;  genre fiction tends to emphasize plot.

Although I lean towards genre fiction, I also put character first, and that is where most of my stories start.  So to me, the literary vs genre argument is a bit like debating which one of your lungs is more important. Or which side of the coin holds the most value. 

A deep character that does nothing more than ruminate on their navel is dull and uninteresting; a whirlwind plot with a cardboard cutout for character is insipid and empty.

A good story needs both.

So it that it, then? Is our quest complete?

No -- not at all. We've established the foundation -- the two mighty pillars of character and plot -- but there is much that still needs to be done to flesh out the elements of a 'good story.'

I've done a little charting ahead of our course, and I'm expecting to hit (at least) another eight stops on this quest.  For one thing, just throwing out 'plot' is a bit too broad -- we need to do a little dissecting of this topic.

I apologize for the delay in getting this (Monday) post up, and I will do my best to have stop #3 up this Thursday.

Thank you very much for joining me on this quest -- Your thoughts and comments are always welcome!

13 comments:

.jessica. said...

"...like debating which one of your lungs is more important." - YES! If a character isn't moving, then why, exactly, am I paying attention? Call me when something happens. :)

Suze said...

'Suppose I have a complex, fascinating, and dynamic character that any reader can bond with. What if I then make a story about a nice quiet day in that character's life. Maybe on that day, he's off work and decides to sleep in late. Then he gets up, makes some toast, maybe reads the paper, perhaps watches the game on TV, and probably snoozes in his comfy chair during the middle of the game. Later, he showers, warms up some leftovers for dinner, and then spends the rest of the evening reading a book before eventually nodding off.

End of story.

Think this rough outline will ever become a good story, regardless of how great the potential in the character? Can we end our story quest with just character?'

Okay, this cracks me up in a painful way because it is, maybe not exactly but darn near!, the kind of stuff I've been guilty of writing. Historically, I haven't wanted to hurt my characters or have any mean people in the text so my 'plot' suffers and suffers and suffers. When I saw the pic and title of your post, I was, like, okay, here goes!

Love the last sentence of Jess's comment. Good schtuff.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Character always comes first for me, but I definitely write genre fiction.

M Pax said...

I love character. Watching Caprica made me realize how important plot and action are. Something needs to happen and drive the story. The story must be in motion.

Nicole said...

I love character, but I also think if you have a fantastic character, he or she will naturally drive the plot. Add a few twists, and you've got the start of an incredible story!

Mina Lobo said...

We're all challenged to marry character to plot, regardless of whether we're writing genre fiction or so-called literary fiction. Just as there's plenty of the latter which fails in the courtship, there's quite a bit of the former which succeeds. :-)
Some Dark Romantic

LTM said...

I think it's possible, if the character is compelling enough, to have a great story built primarily on character. I'm not sure it would sell at the moment--LOL! No, but I'm thinking about some of the classics that are pretty much the scene you described.

Personally, I'm an action packed plot girl, but I do like having a great character to identify with! Great post, Chris! <3

Chris Fries said...

@jes: LOL! Thanks and I had to laugh at your last line. Great comment, kiddo!

@Suze: I hope it wasn't too painful, Suze. ;^) Good luck -- rememebr Faulkner's classic advice to "Kill your darlings!" applies to our characters as well as our favorite lines. And I laughed at jes's last line, too. ;^)

@Alex: Yep, me too. "Genre-tary" writing. ;^)

@M Pax: I agree Mary. But you know, I've never watched Caprica -- I've heard mixed reviews, but I should probably check it out. I'd love to see how the Cylons came to be.

@ Nicole: They do go hand in hand, I think. Character does drive the plot, but plot reveals and strengthens character. But I do tend to lean on the character side of the equation. Thanks for a great comment!

@Mina: Absolutely! The best fiction transcends the 'genre' or 'literary' label and become a unified whole of character and plot, I think. But sometinmes, regardless of how intently the author may be waving his shotgun at them, the bride and groom just refuse to say I do. ;^)

@LTM: Lol! Yeah, Rochester would probably have to be a vampire for Jane Eyre to make it to the market today. Thanks for the comment, Leigh!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Love your comparison of plot vs. character to choosing one lung over the other, or saying which side of a coin has greater value. Very clever!

As for the "nothing happening" scenario you presented, wasn't that pretty much what "Seinfeld" was all about? With lots of added whining, of course. (I STILL don't understand how that show got to be so popular...)

Terrific post. Looking forward to your next installation.

Mina Lobo said...

@Chris - HAH! Good one! :-)
Some Dark Romantic

Simon Kewin said...

Great post. Like you I tend to towards genre fiction, but I'm getting better at starting with character. Or at least character in some setting, facing some problem which they then have to ovrcome.

Chris Fries said...

@Susan: Thank you! And while I can't help but laugh at the mention of Seinfeld, I do have to respectfully disagree. Yes, the apparent topics of what the show was about were often miniscule ("nothing"), and absolutely the characters were self-absorbed and whiny, but I think there were many excellently-constructed plots in Seinfeld. Each episode usually had deftly-woven multiple plot-lines, with clear action-consequence connections, usually intertwining, interacting, and coming together at the end. There were also elements of long story arcs that spanned episodes (George's engagement, the show-within-the-show they created, etc). Often, what seems to be casual dialogue at the beginning of the show will often reappear later in the episode to held resolve one of the plot-lines (usually with disastrous effects) and connect it with the others. For me, that's actually the best reason to watch Seinfeld -- the great writing. Watch it with a writer's ear, and ignore the annoying narcissism of the characters (or consider that as a key comedic element of their nature), and you may just come to admire it. ;^)

@Mina: Thanks. ;^)

@Simon: Thank you and I agree -- character usually comes first for me.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Maybe you're right about Seinfeld. Lots of people obviously loved the show. I've only watched a couple episodes, so I don't have a very large database to pass judgment on it, but I had a visceral reaction to the characters. I hate whining, and couldn't stand the sounds of their voices.