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Monday, April 23, 2012

Thoughts on Plot pt. 1

Contrary to the classic writing adage that instructs us to “write what we know,” writers often have to force their poor characters into situations that they themselves would never attempt. For this reason, being a book character has got to be one of the worstjobs ever. Your whole life is determined by an evil mastermind who will always sacrifice your well-being for the sake of narrative tension.

For example: In my own life, I tend to shy away from conflict, particularly with my close friends and family. Who likes to get angry? Who wants to feel as though what you want directly contradicts what someone else wants? I'm not saying I'm afraid to stand up for myself, but I don't go around picking fights, either, and I'm usually pretty quick to apologize if I think someone is mad at me.

Unfortunately for my characters, tolerating sustained conflict is probably the number one thing writers need to learn to do when they're plotting a book. The central element of plot is conflict. At its most basic, person A wants one thing; person B doesn't want them to have it, for whatever reason. Romeo and Juliet want to get married; their parents won't let them because of an old family grudge. Frodo wants to be a normal Hobbit, Gandalf thinks he is the best choice to protect the ring. Bella wants to be on equal terms with her boyfriend, and he wants to protect her soul. Or maybe he wants to eat her? (Confession: I never made it through Twilight.)

Weirdly, it can be just as hard to allow your characters to exist for protracted periods of time in “bad” or “difficult” situations as it is to allow conflict in your personal life. On the fourth day of Before I Fall, which I think of as Sam's “darkest day,” Sam is fighting with her friends and her parents. She is kind-of almost-sexually assaulted by her teacher. She feels broken and worthless.

This was not an easy scene to write. As Sam becomes increasingly despondent and then increasingly wild--as she acts out by provoking the attention of Mr. Daimler, and then must suffer the consequences--it was hard not to feel like someone in a horror movie screaming, “No, don't go in the basement!” I hated having to do this to Sam. I hated placing her in this position. But I knew I needed to heighten the central conflict of the novel: Before I Fall is really the story of a girl warring against herself.

Remember: by putting your characters through the ringer, we create a space for readers to reflect on conflict and difficulty without experiencing it directly. We illustrate the need for and the great power of resolution.

25 comments:

Lisa Aldin said...

Great post. Thank you!

allison said...

I love/hated this part of the book...I personally hate feeling out of control and this was a very 'losing all inhibitions moment for Sam.' I hated seeing her act the way she did, but also understood that in order to reach her final climatic decision to sacrifice herself she needed to go to the other extreme and be completely selfish and self involved. As a character she made a lot of bad choices that day, but it made her realize she had already made a lot of bad choices in her life. How many teens get to have that clarity so early? Not many unfortunately...

juliathewritergirl said...

Great post -- that part of "Before I Fall" was like watching a bad car accident; it was awful, because as a reader I loved Sam and didn't want her to get hurt, but at the same time I just couldn't look away. That really is true, though, about conflict being the core of plot. Fiction is real life with all the boring parts taken out and all that, right?

bhwrn1 said...

This is great. Thanks for sharing!

Courtney Price said...

Thank you for never finishing Twilight :)

Evie said...

lauren i just needed to say u have to use jeremy sumpter as alex in delirium (the film) he is soooo perfect for the part. hes just... beautiful. i will literally cry if he is not alex :(. plz write a post to let me know u got this comment and that my thoughts might be used in the film? :) btw the song 'wherever u will go' by charlene soraia HAS to be played at the last chapter. listen to it. it is just perfect, it fits greatly! god if only i could direct the whole film! lol :)

Ainsley Shay said...

I can definitely see how difficult it would be to write Sam's fourth day. When I'm writing my characters into unpleasant situations, it's emotional hard at times, but, completely worth it. The story is always stronger for their (and my) suffering.

Thanks for this.

Sweet Green Tangerine said...

It's heartbreaking to write our characters in pain. It must be the mother in me that feels I need to protect them, but I'm glad you wrote this. I needed to be reminded that conflict is important.
And I almost forgot about that scene with Mr. Daimler...yikes.

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