The Art of Storytelling, Part 6

Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in that recent Writer’s Digest magazine that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying your discussion on style. Some more thoughts of my own… I am currently reading a Ted Dekker book. To me, he seems to be the type of author who is really focused on the plot. The words allow his plot to unfold, but if you take the novel line by line, paragraph by paragraph, he’s not doing anything above and beyond stylistically. The language is rather plain. But it works, because his plots are so twisting and turning…you don’t want to stop and smell the linguistic roses. You just want to get there. On the other hand, take something like Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler. The plot is very minimal, not a lot going on, but the language, characterization, etc. is so rich, you just want to go slow and enjoy her masterpiece. Both types of writing serve their purpose. However, one is that sort of “transparent style” you are speaking of, and the other is…Anne Tyler. Which kind of author do I want to be? Hmmmm… Well, a little bit of both?

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  2. I really appreciated this blog entry, Rebecca, but I did want to add that my article in Writer’s Digest Books is just a small excerpt from my new book FROM FIRST DRAFT TO FINISHED NOVEL (A Writer’s Guide to Cohesive Story Building). You might want to check it out. : )

    http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/nonfiction3.html

    Karen Wiesner
    http://www.karenwiesner.com; Karen’s Quill,
    KarensQuill-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, subscribe for a chance to win Karen’s books every month!
    Men and women who live in the shadows… Award-winning romantic suspense, 5 star reviewed Incognito Series, Books 1-8 now available, http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/fiction7.html

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  3. Hmmmm… Well, a little bit of both?

    That’s me too, Jessica.

    I’ve read fast paced novels like the Dekker book you referred to, but I find myself not caring very much. In one such story, the first POV character died in, like, chapter 2. I didn’t shed a tear or feel sad. In fact, the only emotion it engendered was irritation that I’d started to invest in this character who was so quickly brutally killed. It may have even caused me to stay at arms distance from the next POV character, for the very reason that the rules were now set—the characters might die at any time.

    And another one did, much later in the book. But I didn’t care about that death either. I was not emotionally involved in the story, so I didn’t really care about the characters. Actually, I’m a little surprised I remember the story as well as I do.

    But back to your point, I think it is possible to do both. One of my favorite novels is Gone with the Wind. I haven’t read it for quite some time, but as I remember it, there were places of fast-paced action, but the characters were richly drawn.

    Style? I’ll definitely have to go back and look at her style, but as I recall, there were some languid, flowing sentences at the beginning, befitting of the pre-bellum South.

    One of my favorite contemporary writers is Katy Popa, and she is very good at both.

    Becky

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  4. Karen, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    The link I gave for FROM FIRST DRAFT TO FINISHED NOVEL (A Writer’s Guide to Cohesive Story Building) is for Amazon, but anyone wishing to buy the book can go to Karen’s Web site and find links to other places selling the book.

    I’m already sold—this is near the top of my wish list.

    Becky

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