The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Plot and Character and You

For decades, I’d looked at story primarily as the dance between character and plot (by the way, as the result of endless conversation with Tananarive, I’ve modified this to be character, plot and language—but that’s another discussion).

The old argument regarding which is primary (most writer programs at University level seem to believe it is character and thematics.   Aristotle seems to have believed plot was more primary) seems to me a trick question.

In this perspective, character IS plot, and plot IS character.  In other words, you have a situation: terrorists take over Nakatomi Plaza.  When you drop a specific character into that situation, with a specific set of needs, drives, and capacities, he shapes the situation, producing the plot of “Die Hard.”  Conversely, the situation forces John McClain through greater and greater pressures, stripping away his ego identity, forcing him to tap deeper resources, and removing all illusions, revealing him as a deadly warrior who is 100% willing to die to rescue his estranged wife.

Plot, in other words, is what a character does in a given situation.   Drop another character into Nakatomi Plaza, and you get another plot.   Drop the same character into a different situation, and different aspects of their psychology are revealed.

So again: plot equals character, character equals plot.    They only look different to someone stuck in one mode or the other.  The truth is that once you grasp this, you can start with any aspect of plot or story and end up with the whole shebang.  This is similar to what happens in geometry, where once you understand a circle, if I give you three points, or a single degree of arc, you can describe the rest of the circle.

If you have nothing but a line of dialogue: who said it?  Under what situation?   What was the subtext?
If you have nothing but a character action: who did it?  In what circumstance? To accomplish what?  What was her conscious intent?  Unconscious intent?  How did they align/misalign?  What were her wants?  Needs?   How do they align/misalign?

If you have a thought of a basic character: what situation will force this character to reveal themselves totally?  What will crush them?  What will strip them of all illusion?  What will force them to grow to the next level of their lives?

If you think of a basic   situation: what would be the perfect human perspective from which to view these events? Who has the knowledge to describe what is happening so that the reader will understand? Who has the resources to survive this?  For whom would such a situation be their worst nightmare?    How could it turn into the best thing that ever happened to them?

For whom would this situation be their fondest dream?  How could it turn into their worst nightmare?
Once you grasp the unity of these aspects, you can glimpse a 360-degree revolving dynamic sphere of “story” as the attempt to snatch a glimmer of meaning from the chaos of life.  This is one of the things that makes storytelling a sacred profession.   

The perspective also allows you to gain the perspective necessary to make sense of life itself.  It was incredibly valuable in my own journey: once I saw it in my novels, I began to see it in the PROCESS of writing novels and teleplays.  And then…I started seeing it in the living of life itself.  Everywhere.  Not “directly” through conscious thought or foveal vision, but more inferentially, unconsciously, and through “peripheral” emotional vision.   It is similar to the way that Shamans see the world, and allowed me a language to begin to communicate with people hella more experienced in formal meditative and philosophical disciplines.

It really was true: know one thing, know ten thousand things.  Study a grain of sand deeply enough, and you emerge at the Big Bang.  Master anything, and you know how to master anything else.
Go deeply enough into the things that fascinate you, and you end up looking at the back of your own head.

And if THAT doesn’t blow your mind, nothing will.


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