To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. The post is updated with every new tip so you can keep track of all the character creation advice.
Tired of crawling in your characters' heads? Good! Now we get to move onto how you take those psychological lessons and turn your characters' evolution into potential plot points.
Days 26, 27 and 28: Time to plot your story.
Yes, I'm giving you three days for one exercise, because structure is everything. Plus, the following tips intertwine so much that we need to keep them all in your mind as you break your story. Starting is everything, so let's get on with it.
Conflict, plot and character evolution go hand in hand. Go back to the lists of conflicts you created on Day 11, in our Meet the Bad Guys post, and also go back to every list we did throughout the past 25 days. Print them out and spread them on the table. I want you to be able to see everything.
You may not be an outliner, but humor me. These tips work for pantsers, too. We have a free download on Script that I created, a Structure Grid of Character and Plot Development inspired by Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler's Hero's 2 Journeys. Download it here.
To inspire you, here's a clip from one of Hauge's and Vogler's presentations. Their examination of how a character's emotional journey impacts the story's plot sets up a blueprint for structure. Watch the whole clip, but pay close attention to how they describe the impact of the opening scene for Erin Brockovich, and the many rewrites that changed it.
Let's backup. Just watch the opening scene of Brockovich now, then watch the Hauge/Vogler clip after. Trust me.
(Yeah, subtitles... sorry. It was the best version I could find.)
Midway through the following clip is where Hauge and Vogler examine this opening scene. But watch from the beginning, where they explain how once you know the deeper levels of your character, you can layer those into your story right from the first scene. Yes, we've talked about all of this many times in the last umpteen days of this article series, but sometimes hearing the same ideas from a different person helps you connect the dots.
Revisiting conflict, theme and structure.
Let's explore Cast Away. An over-the-top FedEx systems analyst, obsessed with time management, gets trapped on an island, all alone. No one to organize or direct. Just him and his thoughts. How does he handle the conflicts that will arise, in an environment that is beyond his control, missing the life and love that he may never get back?
What's the worst possible scenario for a time-management freak to be in? A place where time doesn't matter and he has no control over anything. The writer had to create conflicting situations to make him more comfortable being uncomfortable and help him evolve and let go of control.
Remember from our last article, this is also where the story's theme comes in. Survival is a basic human instinct. The writer tossed every survival obstacle at him, even giving him the ultimate test of suicidal ideations. The man who washed up on that island is not someone who would ever allow himself to consider suicide. He was an overachiever. Not a quitter. Yet, he considers giving up because of all the horrific conflicts he faces. That moment of loss of hope presents the perfect opportunity for growth.
Symbolism plays a key role, too. The one package that he keeps unopened gives him purpose—gives him hope. It creates a symbolic connecting thread to his past life and reminder that he must stay focused because, one day, he may be able to deliver that package.
It works. He doesn't give up. For four years, he not only survives, he thrives. By the time he's rescued and returns "home," he cannot just go back to the way he was before. He's forever changed because of this experience, and we want nothing more than for him to be happy. He's been through hell! But home doesn't feel comfortable to him anymore. Quite the contrary. Everything he thought mattered to him is gone.
However, there is still that part of the old Chuck that's alive... the responsible FedEx executive who must deliver that lone unopened package. After he leaves the package on the addressee's porch, he ends up at a crossroads, literally. Unlike in the beginning of the film, he now feels he has choices. Life isn't all about work, and being on a rigid schedule.
When we discussed theme last time, we also talked about payoffs and setups. That package is exactly that. Notice in the beginning of Cast Away, that very package was picked up at that same ranch, and then delivered to her husband in Russia... and he was clearly cheating on her. So, it's a likely assumption that Tom Hanks' character was in possession of that package because the husband returned it, unopened.
That package was swept onto the shore by the tide after he survived the plane crash. The woman who sent it, and he later delivered it to, just might be his destiny. His future, all set up four years earlier on the shore of that deserted island.
There were also lines in the movie that stated the theme of survival—"I know what I have to do now. And I keep breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring."
When asked about the film's ending, Hanks reflected on the theme again, "Somehow at the end of the movie, you can stand on the crossroads, and it's going to be okay, it's going to be alright. As long as you keep breathing and have a certain kind of perspective and proportion to your life." His character had to get to the place where he understood the theme in order to survive on that island. Now, he needs to revisit that lesson yet again once he gets off the island. We know he can do this, because we watched him. If he can survive four years on a deserted island, he can survive in Memphis.
Because I want to drive the point home on how to use setups and payoffs, here's the iconic crossroads/package ending. Notice how the road that leads back to the ranch even has a beach-like appearance to it.
Use our free download, or Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet, or index cards, or any other process you already use for outlining, and start breaking story. Jane Friedman recently shared a "Puzzle-Piece Plotting Method" by Justin Attas that might work well for you, too.
But what if you're a pantser? No worries! Now that you know your characters inside and out, the panters-style works great, too! Nothing is written in stone. This is just a roadmap. It will change. Read that again—it will change. It should change! You're going to keep learning about your characters during this phase, too.
For inspiration, look back at the character lists you created earlier, like from Days 15, 16, 17, 18, where we explored comfort, revenge, fear and power by asking the characters “What do you want the most and what is keeping you from achieving it?"
Don't just rely on your lists. Keep using your imagination and exploring new choices and conflicts for your characters.
Push them off a cliff.
If I haven't driven this home enough, let's say it one more time—PUSH YOUR CHARACTERS OFF A CLIFF! No one wants to watch a movie where the main character is in a protective bubble. Push them, dammit! Force them to face something that scares the crap out of them. Test their coping skills. Find out who they really are by how they react to the situations you put them in. Then push them farther! Imagine a scene that would keep them from being able to have their natural reaction. Shock the hell out of them!
Raise the stakes.
Here's where I want you to go off road. As you add each point of conflict, have them do something you’ve never seen on screen before. The conflict itself can be something totally original, or how they react to that conflict can be original. Just be original! If you can't think of something off the cuff right now, don't worry, just write "do something super awesome here" and move on, but know you must find an original way when it comes time to write.
When I was writing a kidnap scene for Slavery by Another Name, Doug Richardson demanded I find a way to kidnap the son in a manner no one has ever done on screen before. It took me a few weeks to figure out how, but I did! It turned out to be one of his favorite scenes in the script.
Even if most of the ideas you jot down are similar to others we've seen, twist just one of them to be something totally mind-blowing. Just one powerful, totally original scene can make a movie memorable. Do that. Always do that.
Only two more tips for our 30-days series! Next up: Writing Character Introductions and Dialogue
Read the full series 30 Days of Tips for Character Development
Get more outlining tips from our on-demand webinar, Creating Powerful Story Outlines - Character-Driving Plot
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