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Plotting From Character |

Plotting From Character

I’ve asked my friend Sharon to write a short article about plotting, because she plots from character as opposed to story. I wanted to provide you with an alternative means of breaking story and beginning the outline. Ultimately, every writer must find the process that best taps their natural gifts. Here’s what Sharon says:

I start every story with character. Who somebody is and what do they want to do or not do. What their weakness or flaw is and what they are willing to do to change it (if they can recognize it as a flaw at all).

I’m not conscious of doing this but there it is, in every process that I resort to at the beginning of each project. Anne Lamott writes in BIRD BY BIRD that “plot grows out of character.” Only after the writer understands his or her character, what that person will do or will care about doing soon will the rest of the story (yes, I mean plot) become clear.

It isn’t an easy process. Starting from plot or a situation sets your goals down concretely. You have a situation. (A romantic comedy that can be summed up in a sentence: an anorexic falls in love with the winner of an eating contest. Yes, I’m being silly, but you get the point.) The problem is that situations are often just the first act. Starting from character is trickier simply because character is amorphous. (But in the end, it might be more helpful.) The story can take its directorial cues only from the people that you are writing about. Conversely, Lamott writes that characters should not “serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up.” (Time and again as a reader, I have read many scripts that were all concept and no character — which might make the most fantastic concept movie seem generic and forgettable.)

So, I start at the very beginning. What does my character want? What does she care about most in the world? What is at stake for her? From that some small plot ideas might start to form. (Or, not. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t feel like teeth-pulling most of the time.) Usually this is a period of writing (longhand or typed) endlessly without any real self-editing. Soon, I usually find the toe-hold in the story. With that comes some structure. I like to know the end of act one and two. If it is a great day, I will know the mid-points. And, yes, I try and do this with all the main characters. Even more so for the antagonists. The more I know about them and what makes them interesting the better.

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4 Responses to Plotting From Character

  1. Wil April 4, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    “Starting from character is trickier simply because character is amorphous.”

    If I understand you correctly, then I must disagree. I can’t imagine writing anything for a character without knowing that character intimately, the way you’d know a close friend or family member. To that end, I find a character’s actions to be more or less determined by his/her identity, which doesn’t feel amorphous at all. Writing from characters you know; people who are real to you… that provides much more structure than having 2-dimensional pawns act out your plot.

  2. Monica April 5, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    Hi, Wil, I understand what you’re saying, and you’re right.

    Where I was coming from in saying this is that human behavior and response isn’t static. Despite the fact that you might know a character intimately, how that character would respond to a defined circumstance will depend on whether or not they’re in a good mood or bad mood, if they’re stressed or not, or what happened in the days/hours/minutes before the action. To me, there are a million variables that go into an emotional response to any circumstance, and that gets complicated. That is why I say character is amorphous (especially in the beginning, when you’re just trying to lock a concept or story) – because, to my mind, it is easier to “lock” concept, actions and circumstance.

    For example, a bombing will always be a bombing. You might have a character who is a hero, and would always behave heroically, but if that character has a broken leg and is physically prevented from helping save lives, then we actually have a fixed circumstance that will define how that character would react based on that moment. I personally feel it is easier to fix certain elements (concept, basic character arc, theme, trajectory) and then work the character into that than to write exculsively with character defining the story.

    I very rarely read small character dramas that have enough of a hook, dramatic conflict or action to sustain a feature film. But, they’re out there!

  3. Billy Marshall Stoneking April 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm #

    “You specialize in something until one day you find it is specializing in you.” – Arthur Miller

    Dialogical cinema cannot be meaningfully reduced or pigeonholed into any preconceived genres or categories. It is not a style, so much as the essence of style – the source of freshness and originality that defies elucidation in terms of either a linear or non-linear form of narrative. It is not limited to or subsumed by experimental, alternative or hybrid films or filmmakers, nor is it susceptible to description by means of appeal to the conventional jargon that is commonly employed in delineating and analysing the usual component processes of that most unusual of obsessions, that strangely occult occupation that calls characters out of the darkness to enact and play-out their dramas round and within the virtual campfire of cinematic storytelling.

    Whether the story is fictional or factional, whether the screen is large or small, in a theatre or on one’s laptop, it is the interactive impulse made present that is the core of the dramatic action and the soul of character-based, screen drama. From idea to script to production through to post, an dynamic and interactive environment continually shapes and paces the emotional energies expressed by the actions of all of the characters necessary to the finding the drama.

    Depending upon one’s perspective, and at which point one embarks upon one’s relationship with the characters, the dialogic operating within, behind and through the characters’ actions may be viewed as either a process or an outcome, or both. It is important, therefore, not to interpret “Dialogical Cinema” as merely a consequence or product of a certain kind of methodology. Likewise, it would be inexact to think and speak of it merely as a technique for the development of story.

    Dialogical cinema is not noun but verb – a doing more than a having. One can DO it much more effectively than one can possess it, and has little if anything to do with what one knows, for knowledge is of no use to it. Indeed, knowledge is almost always its enemy.

    Dialogical cinema is a way of being – a way of being with oneself and one’s characters, and with whatever story is trying to get itself born by means of whatever storytellers are attracted to it.

    Dialogical cinema takes seriously the idea that dramatic stories are not merely ABOUT relationships and problems; they ARE relationships and problems. And the relationships and problems are not confined to the script. The actual screenplay is but an artefact of a dynamic, interactive continuum that all the characters undergo in the process of becoming acquainted with one another; it is but one side of a dialogical interface that echoes and mirrors what is being played out – often unconsciously – in the inner and outer dramas of the filmmakers, their audience and their tribe/s.

    The central question facing the prospective screen storyteller is where do I position myself in terms of the drama? Basically, there are only two choices: in or out. One is either inside the drama, or a mere spectator. Alas, the experience of viewing a spectator-generated film is something with which most of us are all-too-familiar; it is equivalent to, and about as exciting as, listening to a blow-by-blow account of a heavyweight-title fight filtered through the intermediary of some guy who heard about it from some guy who heard it on radio.

    Far too many screenwriters, “create” their stories at arms-length, or even farther. Whether it be due to a fear of “cheesiness” or simply a lack of insight or an impoverishment of taste, the great majority of screen storytellers – would-bes and already-have-beens – creep uncertainly into that most dangerous region on Earth – the world of character-driven drama.

    Screenwriting programmes, cameras, lighting rigs, sound recording devices, monitors and editing software; the deals and tax breaks, the casting agencies and training schools that feed into the materialisation of the dream – that make it shareable – all of these are unquestionably necessary to the enterprise. However, regardless of how important they may be – and I often wonder whether films schools generally are a boon or a bust as far as eliciting native creativity is concerned – they are merely the MEANS by which a story is told. The means, unfortunately, is of little use without a MEDIUM.

    To effectively enter the world of character-based drama, both cast and crew must work as mediums. The job of the medium is to conduct emotional energy – to be open and receptive to it, to continually free it and keep it moving and building and releasing according the deep emotional logic of the characters’ actions and understandings.

    To work as a medium is to been intimately connected with the emotional energies of a story as these energies flow from scene to scene, and within each scene. To work as a medium is to have the courage to let go, to allow oneself to listen to and respond authentically to the other characters, to give them permission to become what they will, to trust.

    A storyteller caught up in the thrall of dialogical cinema conducts the life of the drama by becoming the life of the drama, and allowing the Drama to become the storyteller’s life.

    Dialogical cinema is revolutionary, not necessarily in a political sense, or even aesthetically; but as a powerful, living energy that flows freely every time a screen storyteller has to courage to relinquish control, to set aside the sophisticated chauvinism that refuses to treat the other characters as less than one’s equals.

    The success of any dramatic screen story – its ability to move us, to change us – depends on the quality of the interactions that occur both inside and outside the script. The evolution – or “making present” – of any story world, is necessarily interactive. Indeed, the dialogical drama can have no being apart from the living interaction of MEDIUMS – a collaboration whose alchemical-like union swirls with equal amounts of dread and delight around and within the field of original characters whose problems, goals, plans, anxieties and points of view are made fully present only when the emotional energies at play are conducted mediumistically.

    Media is best conducted when conducted by mediums. But it will always do whatever it is told to do by whoever is manipulating it. The written word has given us The Koran as well as Mein Kampf, and the advertising jingle employs the same seven-note scale as Beethoven’s Pastoral.

    Every dramatic story develops from the interactions of those characters relevant to the story’s natural history and final cause. However, if one works only with the characters in the script, one aborts whatever opportunities the other characters had to become actively involved in living the drama, and thus contribute to its potency. The damage done by storytellers whose ignorance of these characters is allowed to pass unchallenged and uncriticised, thus subverting the potential of the story that is trying to birth itself, is incalculable.

    Standing in marked contrast to this narrow-minded, fearful, and controlling style of filmmaking, is Dialogical Cinema, in which ALL of the characters relevant to the finding of story are engaged and interacting with one another. One of the great – and mostly ignored – lessons of the new, so-called interactive media is that it provides a rather vivid metaphor of a largely hidden process whose usual domain is the imagination. It externalises the fundamental dialogical relationships and elements of mediumship in ways that the black squiggles of a written language seem less and less able to convey with any degree of power or eloquence.

    But the “new media” is only another means to an end, in a universe teeming with means, and like any other means for expression must go begging for a storyteller – who is ready and eager to step away from the “second-life” we so carelessly and habitually understand as “reality” and take up the adventure that is the true and enduring territory of the MEDIUM.

  4. Monica April 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Billy, it sounds like you’re really passionate about writing from character and your understanding of “dialogical cinema.” This reads like a master’s thesis!

    I personally try to stay away from judgments that define one type of filmmaking as “narrow-minded, fearful, and controlling” and another as enlightened. It’s hard to get anything produced, and if something actually gets made, I just think, ‘Good one.’

    Through my experience in dealing with a variety of professionals throughout the years, I feel that people tell stories about which they feel passionately – something that resonates on a very intimate level. What we write is a combination of this passion and also what we gravitate toward in terms of how our brain processes information. To this end, some people birth the story from the emotional space – the character – and some people birth from the situation/circumstance of the story. I think every writer needs to discover what works for them.

    Thanks for contributing to the dialogue about how we writers craft!