Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Plot-Character Integration: Part 1, The 3/4 Point Pivot: The Worm Turns by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Plot-Character Integration:
Part 1,
The 3/4 Point Pivot
The Worm Turns
Jacqueline Lichtenberg
We've talked about Theme-Character integration for 6 entries now.

Here's #6 on the Hero vs the Bully

Much of this is based on this method of constructing an opening to any story:


And here is the index to Theme-Plot Integration series:

Theme-Plot Integration index has now been updated with more posts on acquiring the ability to carve out a theme and state that theme within a PLOT.

"Plot" is very concrete, very specific, well defined and easy to learn to distinguish from "story" for the purposes of this analysis.

Here is the post defining "plot" in contrast to "story". 

Both "theme" and "character" are amorphous clouds it's very hard to get your head around. 

Theme is based on "philosophy" -- which despite being a couple thousand years old as a discipline (think Socrates) is still rather ill defined as a subject. 

Meanwhile a story "character" is based on how people internalize and use "philosophy" without even knowing they have one.

In fact, the biggest percentage of your audience as a Romance Writer is composed of readers who are convinced they do not have a philosophy, and are bored by philosophy.  They love Love -- not "philosophy."   

Put theme and character together and you wander away into mists of confusion that just don't produce entertainment.  Add plot, and presto, the mists crystallize into bemusing patterns like snowflakes.

Ruminating on theme or character won't  articulate words that a publisher can take to the marketing department expecting sales.

What marketers can sell is PLOT.

"Plot" as I've defined it throughout these posts is simply the sequence of EVENTS that happen on a BECAUSE LINE.

That's why so many books on writing craft tell (without showing) you to keep the reader turning pages by making them eager to know "what happens next."  The word "happens" is key, but "next" is vital to creating a plot. 

Plot is a structure.  Like "time" structures our reality, "plot" structures our fiction. 

There are just two plots that work across all genres: 

A) Johnny gets his fanny caught in a bear trap and has his adventures getting it out.
B) A likeable hero struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal.

That's it.  If you've got anything other than one of those two -- you don't have a widely marketable work.

Note each of those 2 basic types of plot integrates Character into the plot action. 

It takes a character to make something "happen next."  It takes a character to make readers care what happens next -- because what happens must happen to someone who deserves it (or doesn't deserve it.)

One more clue that I discovered by myself:

C) stay on your BECAUSE-LINE.  Plot=Because.

PLOT= CHESS -- that's it, a novel is a chess game between your student (your main POV character is your sock-puppet or student of Living Life) and your reader.

At your opening scene, the Character who will be the HERO -- the character whose story you are telling, DOES SOMETHING.  "Johnny gets his fanny" or "hero struggles."

Remember, your POV character is playing the WHITE PIECES and thus MAKES THE FIRST MOVE.

That's how you find the opening scene of your novel -- look for the singular point in your main character's whole life where they made that ONE SINGULAR fateful decision and took action on it.  Look for that singular point in his/her life where they had to play the white pieces and thus make the first move.

The singularity of that moment in a Life is what "hooks" the reader into wanting to know what happens NEXT. 

"The Plot" is the series of consequences of that initial decision/action.

For example, a soldier just returned from war "saves the cat" ... standing in line at a hot-dog stand, he hears a BOOM and reflexively sweeps the strange woman standing in front of him behind a car.

A building collapses on them, but they're in a sheltered cave under all that rubble.  They get acquainted as the rescue squad digs them out.  As a CONSEQUENCE (i.e. because) this man survived to return from war, this woman's life is saved.

What HAPPENS NEXT is the because line -- what are the further life-directing consequences of his reflex action? 

Is this fellow "Johnny" and the woman his 'bear trap' he must struggle free of?  Or is PTSD his bear-trap?

Or perhaps this Likeable Hero's "worthwhile goal" is uprooting the terrorists who blow things up, and the woman is either the overwhelming odds or the key to the conspiracy he's trying to unmask?

Or perhaps the Likeable Hero's "worthwhile goal" is to find a wife and settle down to raising kids (after almost being killed in war), and the woman he saves is his goal, and the terrorists who make explosions are the "seemingly overwhelming odds" (as he's just one person, and they are international organizations.)

Do you see how all these questions are folded up inside the description of a single EVENT?  That EVENT is the opening plot event of a novel.  Because that event happened, Hero did something that had consequences, then because of that consequence, She will do something, and because of the consequence of what she does, he will do something etc etc to HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

Literally millions of stories, no two alike, can be woven out of that plot.

The story is something else all together.

The story is the emotional effect those deeds and consequences have on the Characters. 

The story is all about who those characters are, the emotional impact of the Event, and the consequences of those emotions.  The story is all about the PLOT happening to the Character -- that is, impacting a Person, an individual like no other in the world. 

The plot is what the character does; the story is what happens to the character because of what the character did. 

The theme is the equation that relates the character's actions to the consequences of those actions -- the theme is this character's Life Lesson (and the title of the Work.)

The element that "integrates" plot and character is theme.

What happens and who it happens to are selected by the writer to reveal something primal about the nature of life, the universe and everything.  What is revealed is the theme.

For example, if the Hero is this fellow just returned from war looking for a wife, and terrorists strike the city, then that Event might define the THEME of this piece as something about how "Whatever you flee follows you because it originates inside you."

He can only free himself from a life of fighting terrorists by expunging that element inside him that binds him to either a life of violence (he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword) or to a life of opposing an ideology. 

Does he really want to change his life -- or does he just want to relocate his life?

Does she have to accept his life and enter it?  Or will he enter her life, leaving his behind?  Or will they create something new?

If that's the direction of your novel, you create the woman he rescues from the explosion to be maybe a daughter or grand-daughter of someone who holds the ideology the Hero has been fighting.

The plot is all about him chasing down the terrorists who dropped a building on his woman (and him, but hero types don't count themselves.)

The story that goes with that plot is all about him convincing her to change her ideology (or vice/versa).

Set this PLOT in Iran, for example, and make this Hero a guy who has just returned from fighting in Syria.  Change the hot-dog stand to ethnic food.  He rescues the comely niece of a Christian Preacher making World headlines from Jerusalem.  Did the explosion that collapsed the building on them originate with a Shin Bet operation undermining Iran?  Is she perhaps involved? 

Do you see how such a simple plot EVENT as an explosion can be pregnant with Questions of THEMATIC SUBSTANCE? 

Regardless of whether your reader knows that they live by a philosophy, they do in fact read stories in search of the underlying philosophy the Characters live by.  That is what causes the interest in "what happens next."

You do not allow yourself as a writer to TELL your theme - or reveal in explicit, on-the-nose-dialogue -  what that underlying philosophy of your characters is.

Why is that?  Because readers who don't know that they, themselves, have and live by a philosophy don't want to read about characters who DO KNOW that they live by a philosophy. 

What happens -- the Plot Events - define the entire philosophical underpinnings invisible behind the character's lives.  The Events -- what happens next -- are the plot, and the plot tells the story.

There are many possible consequences of any action, any Plot Event.

Which one actually happens is selected by the writer from the Theme because what happens (with or against the odds) eventually adds up to a sketch of the nature of reality, the structure of the universe. 

The plot reveals the theme; the story explains the theme. 

To Integrate the Plot with the Characters whose actions generate the plot, just let the Character collect enough information about "what action causes what to happen" and then arrive at a notion of the structure and function of their universe.

The Hero, who can be female, then takes a final action based on that new perception of reality.

And the final consequence gives the reader assurance that they have understood what the Character saw in their universe that caused them to choose this final action.

In the best selling books on screenwriting, Save The Cat!, Blake Snyder discusses the 3-act and 4-act structure, pointing out that recent blockbuster films are most all 3-act.

Novels, so far, have tended to be 4-act structures, even as best sellers.

Watch for this to change as the two fields blend.  To learn about 'acts' and the structure of an 'act' read up on stage writing, especially going back to the Ancient Greek plays.

So going with the 4-act structure of the typical Romance Novel, the end of Act 3 is the 3/4 point in the novel. 

3/4 is the point at which the Main Character arrives at the AHA! moment when he understands the world he lives in, the tricks his enemies have played. 

At the 3/4 point, the Who of the "who-dun-it" mystery is clear to the Detective, the "Dear God, I Love That Woman!" moment happens when the woman is about to marry someone else.

At the 3/4 point the main character understands what he/she must DO, regardless of the obvious consequences.  The action which is suddenly imperative was inconceivable prior to this understanding. 

This 3/4 point is the point at which THE WORM TURNS -- this is the cornered-rat moment, this is the wounded-elephant-rage moment.  This is where the character finally gets a grip on himself and shows what he's made of. 

The 3/4 point is where Story and Plot blend into one seamless whole.

At the 3/4 point the reader understands the theme.

To create that complex point, the writer has to have trimmed away all extraneous matter from the story and from the plot so that every story-reaction and every plot-event illustrates precisely the same theme. 

"Theme" is very nebulous until it's been defined by precision plotting.

A lot of writers don't do precision plotting with conscious intent, but finished product is the same.

At the 3/4 point, the writer may state the theme in a line of dialogue, a worded thought (in italics), or even a narrative statement, possibly even exposition where the writer speaks directly to the reader.  Dialogue is best for stating a theme, and the best character to do that is a secondary character -- not one of the two principles who are in conflict.  In film, this is your B-story character.

The thematic statement should be no more than one line, not even one whole sentence.

Sometimes, if you've done your work well by keeping every Event on the Because Line and selecting what happens next to clearly delineate the THEME, you can do this "theme-stated beat" with a single word that the reader has enough information to understand.

This verbalization of the theme should come several pages after the character clearly grasps the point he/she has been missing about how and why his world works the way it does.

Thus the writer is not informing the reader of what the theme is, but confirming the reader's suspicion -- or perhaps conviction -- of what makes this invented world tick.

The 3/4 point is the moment when the main character knows right from wrong, and understands what the right action must be.  It is a moment of value judgement, and thus often akin to a religious conversion.

One of the major tasks in rewriting is to cut, trim and adjust the entire manuscript so that this salient moment of revelation, of epiphany, comes at exactly the 3/4 (or 2/3 in a 3-act structure) point without moving the 1/2 point (highest or lowest moment of main Character's life) of its mark.  These critical story-structure points are called in screenwriting and stage writing "beats."  They have the emotional intensity of a drumbeat and structure fiction just as tempo structures music.

Placing these story-development points at the correct percentage points of the manuscript is what is technically called "pacing."  If the writer doesn't get the placement right in the submission draft, a good editor will insist that a chapter be cut here or a character be cut there.  That final edit against a deadline can be brutal and high-pressure for the writer, so it's better to do it yourself at the outline stage.

The final act, the last quarter (or third) of the novel, is configured around the main character taking an action (plot) based on his new understanding (story) of his world (theme). 

When at the end, his world reacts to his action as he understood at the 3/4 point, the reader feels that events corroborate the reader's understanding of the novel.

That moment of corroboration is the payload for every novel, every film, every story.

Corroboration provides the satisfaction, confidence, and relaxation that can only come from understanding your reality.  (Never mind if that understanding is wrong; it is yours, and that's all that matters.)

That corroboration is the resolution of the conflict that generated the plot on page 1, and it is also the resolution of the internal conflict that generated the story. 

Reading a good Ending is like putting the final piece into a jigsaw puzzle so you can see the entire work of art without any holes.  The final piece falls into place and the fictional world makes sense -- which provides the feeling that the real world makes sense. 

Ultimately, that's why we read fiction -- to discover how and why our real world, our real life experience, makes sense.

The 3/4 point beat is where the hypothesis becomes a theory, and the end is where the theory is proven to be fact.  That proof releases the tension wound into the springboard at the opening moment.

Here is the index to the series on creating Story Springboards:

In that series on Springboards we discuss what exactly it is that makes a novel "interesting" -- what does a writer do to tell "an interesting story" and what "interesting" means from an editor's and reviewer's point of view.

Here is the index post listing the Art And Craft of Story and Plot Arcs

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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