Plot First and Character First Writing

Plot First versus Character First is another style preference for writers.  When you first come up with a story idea, what do you think of first? Do you think of all the epic plot twists and intrigue, or do you think of the complexity of your main character, with his backstory and his favorite music and his hopes and dreams?

Where you start in your creation process is usually indicative of what type of writer you are. If you tend to write really deep, complex characters, and then figure out a plot around them in order for them to have something to do, you’re probably a character-first writer.

If, on the other hand, you start with an idea for a scene or a plot twist or a concept and then have to come up with characters to play the parts, you’re probably a plot-first writer.

Again, there is no right way or wrong way to start out. Your natural tendencies are often your greatest strengths, so it’s a great jumping-off point to start where your inclinations lead.

However, as with most things, the easiest thing to do is what you already know how to do, so plot-first writers tend to develop ever more engaging plots, but end up with flat, uninteresting characters who don’t grow or change over the course of the story, while character-first writers tend to have deeply developed and relatable characters who wander aimlessly along the pages of the book without really doing or accomplishing anything.

The best stories have a balance of both plot and character. So, whichever way you tend toward naturally, it is essential to learn the opposite.

There are many great writing craft books on both subjects, so I won’t go into great detail here, but here are some of the basics.

Plot:

Your plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is sometimes referred to as the “Three Act Structure,” but there are variations on the theme and some methods have more parts to them. However, this basic principle of beginning, middle, and end is fairly universal.

The beginning is where you introduce your character and the goal your character is trying to reach. In Miss Congeniality, the goal is to stop the bomber who is threatening the pageant. So, in the beginning we are introduced to the FBI agent and we see the ultimate goal—stopping the bomber.

The middle is where the bulk of your story takes place. This is where the plot takes shape. Something has to happen. There needs to be some sort of obstacle that the hero must overcome.

Obviously, the plot depends largely on what genre you’re writing in, but all stories must have some sort of conflict. Conflict is what drives a story. If it’s a romance, then there must be some factor (or multiple factors) that keep the heroine from the hero. In a sci-fi story, the spaceship could have mechanical failures that keep the hero from reaching his destination, or the ship might be taken over by hostile aliens. In a suspense or action story, the bad buy might sabotage everything the hero is working toward, and the hero’s life might be in danger.

In the middle of your story, you have all the factors that tie in to prevent your hero from reaching his goal all coming at the hero, one after the other, forcing him to try harder, move faster, do better, and so on, all leading up to the climax.

The climax is the make-it-or-break-it moment, the part that the rest of the story has been leading up to. Will she tell him how she feels or will she chicken out and decide to just be friends? Will he defuse the bomb before it goes off or will he run the other direction and get as far away from the blast as possible? Will she outsmart her attacker and get the upper hand, ultimately defeating him, or will she fail?

Finally, you have the end. This is where the plot is resolved, for better or for worse, and the story is wrapped up.

If you think of your story as a mountain, the beginning is the flat area before you actually begin hiking. The middle is where you start the trek upwards, encountering obstacles and overcoming roadblocks, until you get to the peak. The peak is the climax, where you’ve either made it successfully or where you turn back and decide it’s not worth the effort. Once you reach the peak, then you come down the other side, having successfully completed your quest.

This mountain journey is called the plot arc, and every story must have one. If you are a character-first writer, consider carefully whether your story has all the elements, or whether your character wanders aimlessly around the foothills without ever reaching the peak.

Character:

Characters are as diverse as people are. No two look alike. There may be similarities, as in physical attributes, backgrounds, tastes, and so on, but every character is unique. However, bringing those characters to life is not an easy task. Many times, characters on the page react to their situations or let the plot carry them along. Creating a character is creating a person. A person who carries baggage from a past that shapes the way he thinks. A person who has a worldview and a frame of reference for how she interprets her surroundings. A person with a distinct personality who tends toward logic or emotion, who tends to be either more creative or more analytical, who tends to be more shy or more outgoing.

The more deeply you develop your character, the more he or she will behave like a real person, and thus the more relatable he or she will be.

There are many tools you can use to help you with character development. The Meyers-Briggs personality test (or any other personality profile), psychology textbooks, character profile charts, and so on. Understanding people is the key to understanding your characters and why they react the way they do in certain situations.

There are two main things to keep in mind as you develop your character.

The first is consistency. Your character must behave in line with the way you’ve created her, and if she doesn’t, there had better be a good reason for it. For example, if your character is a type-A control freak who organizes her socks and has lists and charts for everything that goes on in her life, then when her artistic, go-with-the-flow friend suggests they drop everything and go on a spontaneous road trip, your character is going to have a very hard time saying yes.

Now, if your story is about your character learning to let go and finding out it’s okay not to be in control all the time, then there has to be a good reason for her to take the step in the first place.

Your reader will know if something your hero does is out of character for them. You can’t have a person who is honest to a fault tell a white lie to save his own skin, and you can’t have a vegan enjoying a nice, juicy burger. Your reader will immediately lose respect for your character, and be upset because “he would never do that!”

The more thought you put into developing your character, her backstory, her personality, and her quirks, the more those elements will bring her to life on the page.

The second thing to remember is that your character must grow or change in some way. The experience of living through the plot must have an impact on his life and choices. It shouldn’t change his personality, it should just help him learn something new and apply it going forward.

This is called the character arc. The character arc doesn’t have to be deep or momentous, but it does have to occur. Your character needs to be able to look back on the events that occurred in the book and see how it had purpose in her life, how she’ll be a little more relaxed, open herself to the unexpected a little more, be a little nicer to those less fortunate, be a little braver in the face of fear, and so on.

Often, the character arc coincides with the plot arc. The two have a symbiotic relationship, and one can’t happen without the other.

The character can’t solve the mystery until he learns to really listen to people, but it’s the act of searching out clues that enables him to listen to the meaning behind the words not just the words themselves so he can really hear, which gives him the facts he needs to put the clues together to solve the mystery.

The plot can also serve as a platform to force change. If your character has a paralyzing fear of heights, then in order to reach the peak and come down the other side of the plot mountain, she will need to climb up the telephone pole despite her fear. The stakes need to be high enough that she has no option but to face her fear, because giving up would have consequences that are even more dire than vertigo that could make her fall to her death.

As I’ve shown, a good story needs a balance between plot and character, and those two elements combine to create an engaging, memorable story. Study both, but spend more time working to develop whichever style is not your natural inclination, in order to create that balance between the two.

Book Review–Rebirth by Amy Brock McNew

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to participate in the cover reveal for my good friend Amy’s book, Rebirth.

Well, it’s that time! The book is now available!

And on that note, I’d love to give you some more information.

Back Cover Copy:
Liz Brantley has a gift she wants to return.
Able to see and fight demonic forces, she has spent her life alone, battling the minions of hell bent on her destruction, running from the God who gave her this curse. Drawn to her abilities, the demon Markus unleashes havoc on her hometown and pulls Liz further into the throes of battle.
She’s desperate for a normal life. When she meets a mysterious man who seems unaware of the mystical realm that haunts her, the life she’s always wanted moves within reach. But her slice of normal slips from her grasp when an old flame, Ryland Vaughn, reappears with secrets of his own. Secrets that will alter her destiny.
Torn between two worlds, Liz is caught in an ancient war between good and evil.And she isn’t sure which side to choose.

Review:

I really love this story.

The action is intense and exciting. Fight scenes that are realistic and make you wonder who will win, non-stop danger and intrigue, and twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The spiritual realm is brought to life in a real and tangible way.

The characters are believable and relatable, and  I could feel the tension and frustration that Liz felt as she made her decisions. Despite being battle-hardened and bitter, Liz has a soft side that makes you want her to have everything she wants in life. Especially Ryland. The tension between Liz and Ryland is palpable, and their relationship is…well, you’ll have to read it to find out how it turns out.

I highly recommend this book. You won’t regret it.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what some others are saying about it:Amy Brock McNew

“An action-packed tale of classic good versus evil from the depths of human despair and heights of God’s grace. Filled with romance, betrayal, love, loss and ultimate triumph.”
—Tosca Lee, New York Times bestselling author of Legend of Sheba

“An intriguing debut from a fresh new voice that merges the spiritual and the supernatural, creating an inventive Christian Fantasy in the style of Peretti and Myers. Plus, there’s a bossy angel and a kick-butt heroine with a sword, folks!”
—Rachel A. Marks, author of Darkness Brutal
“Amy Brock McNew’s writing style is engaging, honest, and unique. It feeds the part of me that loves fantastical stories, plus it adds a healthy dose of truth. I’d recommend her stories to anyone who enjoys gritty spec fic.”
—Ben Wolf, award-winning author of Blood for Blood
Buy it here:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Sm5pNZ
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1So45GY
iBooks: http://apple.co/1So4l8S
Kobo: http://bit.ly/213uz67
And to connect with Amy Brock McNew, find her on social media:
Website: http://amybrockmcnew.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AmyBrockMcNewAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/AmyBrockMcNew
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/26955721-amy-mcnew
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/AmyBrockMcNew/

Writing Craft 101: Pantsers and Plotters

Pantsers and Plotters: This refers to your particular style, whether you prefer to write “by the seat of your pants,” making things up as you go along (pantser), or whether you prefer to create a detailed outline of your characters and plot arc before ever beginning to write the story itself (plotter).

There are those who will advocate for one method above the other, insisting that one or the other is the better way to write, but in truth, there are pros and cons to both methods.

Pantsers are the people who make up the story as they go along. They start with an idea for a plot or a character and the story evolves around that idea. Pantsers tend to have more freedom because their story evolves as they go along, leaving room for plot twists and added characters or character deaths or all kinds of things they didn’t see coming when they first had the idea.

Pantsers listen to the story and follow it where it wants to go. These are the people who talk about characters making decisions on their own and doing things the author didn’t expect them to do.

The downside of this is that it typically takes more revision and editing because there are often inconsistencies that come along with making a story up as you go along.

Pantsers also have a greater risk of writer’s block, because if they don’t know where the story is going to end up, they don’t know what has to happen along the way.

Plotters, on the other hand, plan out in great detail the story and character arcs, making extensive outlines to plan where the story will go and what will happen.

Plotters tend to be more detail-oriented and structured. They like to know as much about the story before they start writing the actual scenes as possible. The more information they can put into the outline, the better. They tend to write very fast, because they know exactly what each scene should contain and what they want to accomplish.

They know where the lines are for each act, and how they’re going to get from here to there.

Plotting takes a lot of time, but when plotters actually get to the writing itself, they tend to work fast, because they don’t have to work out any kinks or plot holes.

This helps to minimize the risk of plot holes and tangents, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the story to evolve. Thus, if a plot detour does present itself, it’s much harder to work into the story, because the outline changes and there may be things that need to be rewritten in order to make the new thread work.

There is no right or wrong way to write. More than anything, it comes down to a choice based on personality and preference. Most writers naturally lean toward one style over the other. If you strongly prefer one, don’t try to force yourself to write the other way because someone has told you it’s better.

That said, it’s still a good idea to try something new and stretch your writing abilities. If you’re naturally a pantser, try writing using an outline, even if it’s a basic one. You may find it helps you to fill in details and avoid plot holes.

If you’re naturally inclined to plot everything out beforehand, try writing something completely off the cuff, and just allow yourself to follow the story.

Incorporating styles and disciplines that aren’t your natural tendencies will help you stretch your writing craft and ultimately make you a better writer. You may adopt those styles, or you may decide they don’t work for you, and either is fine. But having tried them will give you a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for you.