Recently, I was teaching a workshop on premise line development. In that class I defined the terms “character,” “plot,” and “story” (as I use them; a bit differently than many). The resulting chaos this caused among the writer-students was startling. Okay, I have developed my own interpretation of these classical terms d’art, and this alone is enough to cause angst and even rebellion if writers have entrenched ideas about what these terms mean. But, in this case, I was struck by the sheer panic that engulfed the writers in my workshop. It was like watching one of those old movies when the villagers in a backward, medieval town see their first eclipse of the sun: alarm, dread, shouts of “burn the witch!”
Fortunately, before the pike sticks came out, I was able to calm the waters and bring back the sun with some reason and logic, and a little whimpering, “Please don’t hurt me.” The incident, however, was important for me because it underscored how much confusion and useless information there is out there for writers, and how falling back on dry, academic definitions for things like “character” and “plot” help no one in their writing process.
What do I mean? When I asked the writers how they defined these terms, I got things like:
“Plot is a series of events that make up a story.”
“A character is a person in a story who carries out actions.”
“A story is a recounting of a progression of events; i.e., a narrative.”
There are, of course, a billion other definitions “out there,” but these are pretty much how most people understand these terms. While perhaps academically sound, I don’t think these kinds of definitions are useful when it comes to telling a story. I’m about actionable results. Writers need tools that actually help them write; and definitions like the three above help not at all.
And so I offer my (i.e., the Storygeeks) approach to dealing with these contentious terms: plot=character=story. I call this the Magick Formula™. Mathematically, it is pure gibberish. But, as a metaphor it symbolizes the true relationship between character, plot, and story in a way that demonstrates the individual building blocks of any story, but also their inseparable relationship. To use a graphic analogy, the formula can be thought of as conjoined triplets: three distinct individuals, but one, physical person. They know what the others are thinking, they finish each other’s sentences, and they act in synergy with the whole being more than the sum of its parts. All for one, and one for all—literally.
Phrased as a statement, the formula says: plot is the “what” of what happens on the page and (=) what happens on the page is determined by what characters “do” at the scene level (in books or screenplays), but what characters “do” at the scene level is dependent on who they are as people and (=) the thing that emerges from all of this is the story. So, plot is what happens, what happens reflects (and can only reflect) characters in action, and the result is a story.
So, for me, plot, character and story are individual concepts, but they have no real value or usefulness unless they are used as metaphors for one another. Meaning, at a fundamental level these three ideas are the same thing (thus the equal signs in the formula). It’s paradoxical, they are distinct, but they are also one. You can’t really separate them, if you have a real story. Literary theorists will object to this reductionist approach, especially regarding the definition of plot; saying that plot is much more than simply what happens on the page. And, frankly, I think this is a valid point, but (isn't there always a "but") think about it. In the final analysis, it (plotting) essentially comes down to the "what" of what happens, i.e., scene- or page-level action carried out by characters at service to some dramatic objective.
It might become clearer if you see how I define these terms:
Character: The combined effect of psychological need, moral lacking, and/or motivation that generates a causal sequence of actions resulting in emotional change.
Plot: The causal sequence of scenes that constitute the "what" of what happens in a story that originates from, and is at service to, the motivations behind the actions taken by characters.
Story: The combination and interplay of character and plot that is a metaphor for a human experience.
(Definitions excerpted from The Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development, by Jeff Lyons. Xela Opus Press, 2013)
In other words, a character acts based on who they are, they don’t just do any old thing in a scene because the writer thinks it’s fun. They rob the bank because they can’t not rob the bank, they dump the girlfriend because it is in their DNA to dump the girlfriend, they take the road trip because they would never not think of taking a road trip; their actions are a reflection of who they are, not just things they do. The consequences for plotting are profound. The “what” of what happens can only be character-consistent action; nothing should happen because it’s cool, or edgy, or something the writer just likes. Things happen on the page because story action equals characters-in-action, and all these action-moments coalesce and combine to make a story.
Not one of these ideas (plot, character, story) can really function without the other two. This is quite a departure from some consensus, academic definition of a story as being a progression of events. The consensus definition might get you a good grade in lit class, but won't help you write a real story.
So, the above definitions are the things that generated all the heat and anxiety in my workshop. But, after having the same reasoned conversation with my writer-students that we are having now, they ended up nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, I can actually use that stuff in my writing.” Which is the point. Like I said, I’m all about actionable, real-world results. This Magick Formula™ is not just a cutesy play on words; it actually means something and can teach you a crucial truth about storytelling: character, plot and story are connected at the heart.
In the days ahead, I’m going to take each of these concepts and write separate posts on each to give more detail and explanation. But, this post can at least establish the big picture about the fundamental interrelationship between plot, character and story. I hope this doesn’t make you want to start screaming, “Burn the witch.” If it does, trust that the sun will return and that there is no witchcraft involved. It’s just good ol’, plain story sense.
- The Five Ws
- Storytelling Strategies: Argo and Recapitulation
- More Story Talk by Jeff Lyons
- Meet the Reader: The Real Rules of Screenwriting
Tools to Help: