Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Plot Decisions Are Character Decisions Are Setting Decisions Are Theme Decisions

Last weekend, an ambitious little spider strung a web across the front of my house. “Ambitious” is the operative word. Despite being no larger than gumdrop, it anchored off to the edge of the roof and then swooped over to the bushes by our front door, effectively turning the walkway into a sticky obstacle course. Since arachnids aren’t my favorite creatures, I found a stick and severed that far-flung strand. The web promptly collapsed.

In a sense, stories are like that. Critics may pick over this or that element, but narratives are whole, of a piece. You can’t add or subtract bits on a whim. Decisions affect the entire structure.

You see this most clearly with themes. It’s hard to make a CEO the antagonist and have readers come away with warm feelings about laissez-faire capitalism. Making a UN peacekeeping force rescue the hero from hostage-takers sends a different message than if he’s saved by soldiers-for-hire, à la the Iran hostage crisis. Ditto for other parts of your narrative. Setting your action in the 1970s changes your characters. Making one of them a kleptomaniac moves the plot in different directions. And so on and so on.

This is important to keep in mind during revisions, especially if you have a lot of people perusing your manuscript and the suggestions are flying. Without a thick skin and a clear head, it’s easy to sever some important strand and revise your work into shapelessness.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Good point.

I'm beginning to think that perhaps it is the vices, as well as the virtues, of a work that gives it its life and vibrancy. The goal of good revision is to figure out where the story is playing fast-and-loose with what some audiences might want out of your own laziness, and where the story itself is simply trying to make a statement or even just have some fun. Twelfth Night wouldn't be as good if it didn't have its ridiculous eucatastrophe; Death of a Salesman would be pointless if its ending were revised to be life-affirming.

Of course the trick of the thing is knowing what is essential and what is self-indulgent.

Loren Eaton said...

Of course the trick of the thing is knowing what is essential and what is self-indulgent.

Absolutely. It's awfully easy to rationalize away the advice of others when you really should take it. But the opposite can happen. I wrote a short in reverse chronology (which served both a plot and character purpose). A nice editor at a certain Web zine told me he liked it, but that I needed to totally invert the sequence, which would have destroyed it. Then again, it hasn't published, so maybe he was right ...