Monday, July 6, 2009

When Stories Fall Flat

What’s more important—character or plot?

I find myself frequently embroiled in this debate: Should the character or the plot drive the story? Many of my writing peers like to start with an “interesting” character and ask themselves what sort of situation fits the character. They start by developing a history for the character—family, hobbies, lifestyle, and those deep abiding questions of the soul, which could range from “Why am I here?” to “Am I really from this planet?”

What would happen to this character if…

  • She were about to be evicted from her home?

  • She’s shy, but competing for a job she really wants against her nemesis?

  • He’s a nice guy, socially inept (bad conversationalist, poor fashion taste, cheap), but wants a wife?

These writers have a character and develop a situation to challenge some aspect of the character’s life or way of thinking.

The other camp of writers, at least the ones with whom I have coffee or online discussions, want a plot first and then carve out a character suitable to the action. They start out something like…

  • There is this person who wants to go to medical school because her father died of cancer, but she is poor and failing chemistry. She will never get a scholarship with poor grades.

  • There is this guy that wants to get married because he is lonely, but he is already married to a witch who won’t give him a divorce.

These writers have a situation and develop a history for the character based on the situation.

Either way you go, this tends to lead to a situational perspective—we end up with a character for whom we create an event or an event for which we develop the perfect character. In the end, it seems to be that both processes are leading to the same result. Either or both can succeed or fail, so why do so many stories seem to fall flat, no matter which approach is used?

While both character and plot are important, something is missing? It could be that I have over-simplified the definition of plot. Perhaps I am calling an event, sometimes termed an “inciting incident,” the plot, though one of these two points tends to be where writers begin. How do these starting points become meaningful, with enough substance to stay with a reader?

If a story focused on events and character falls flat, whichever point you start from, what’s missing? Is it something like baking a cake? Does it really matter if you mix the flour into the sugar and butter or vice versa? Or is it more like baking without salt and soda? What constitutes those extra spices of a story?