Plot: The main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. OED

I saw an advert for a course on plotting for fiction and drama in London recently. If I had £250 to spare and easier access to the Metropolis I might have been tempted. One of those conducting the ‘masterclass’ is a writer I read and enjoy. I am not sure why she is particularly qualified to conduct a masterclass, but her books are entertaining and work in terms of plot and do not ‘clunk’ or make one suck one’s teeth in exasperation or disbelief at odd turns or reveals.

On reflection however, I wonder if plotting can be taught in isolation from character? I mean, I am sure it can be. I am sure one can construct a flawless procession of events which march one from another to a denouement that flows logically from that sequence. You can create pace, variations and the structural builds, let downs, engagement and finale beloved of those ‘How To’ books and articles that show you diagrams of the structure; you know the sort of thing:

Which is okay, and if you haven’t thought of it yourself (you do read fiction?) is useful but hardly worth £250.

But if you have a crashing bore as your protagonist following your plot line, it is going to be a dull read, unless they change as they progress and become only a moderate bore by the end. If she is timid at first and you are afraid the challenges of the mystery, romance, adventure will overwhelm her, she must grow to surprise herself and us that she had the right stuff there all along or the formulaic nature will be revealed. A character that doesn’t change will fail to engage our interest.

You will read some dissections of the novel which put plot and character development in some sort of opposition. Action is regarded as a distraction from the character development in some appreciations of the form. Even the deepest character based novel though,requires some action, some idea of the plotting of events if the character is to develop. Genre works; adventure, crime fiction, SF, spy stories etc rely much more on plotted action but even they need a character to engage with the wheels of the machine and for you to care sufficiently about their ability to survive and grow.

Le Carré has characters who we discover as real, flawed, nuanced people. They are rarely black and white cardboard cut outs following his plot. Robert M Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ packs a road trip across the USA into a developing relationship between father and son along with its exploration of eastern philosophy. A lot of plot and character development there.

My reason for doubting plot without character development is that either alone is formulaic. The two are inextricably bound. Even the flattest take on suburban conformity must have some character/plot interaction if it is to be more than ‘and they all lived moderately dissatisfied lives ever after.’ for three hundred pages. The plot may not be blind watchmaker standard, nor the character development tectonic in its shifts, but the two must exist and interact if we are to persevere to the end and digest the full intent of the author.

The suppressed tensions, the failed dreams, the accommodations brought about by raising children, financial pressure, emotional and social constraints, the inner parent, chiding and cajoling, even if the real parent is deceased, perhaps more so if they are deceased, all work to drive plot. The plot events themselves may not be racing across Europe to defeat terrorists, but the tension between work meetings and attending a school concert can be as tense, for the couple trying to hold on to the romantic love that first attracted them, as any contrived car, boat, train plane race if the characters and plot intermesh correctly.

So save yourself the £250 plus travel. Use some of the money to go and buy a variety of fiction, from Adventure, spy, crime through nineteenth century classics to modern day wunderkind productions. Read them and look for the plotting, the character development. Some will have more of one than the other. The older stories that have survived time and fashion will have both in good measure. The ones that may fail will probably be the wunderkind efforts. ‘Stunning and original’, ‘capturing the zeitgeist of modern urban life’ often translates as ‘self-absorbed dribble about the wonderful multi-cultural district if London I live in (until I can afford to move out to the Cotswolds)’ which no-one will bother with once the fashion changes.

Read the books, even the zeitgeist ones if you want to capture the attention of a frazzled publishing assistant, and think about how and why the story moves from A to Z. Did it hit every letter in order on the way? Or did it jump around and maybe miss a few? Maybe it stopped at V and let you fill in the rest. What happened to the character(s) on the way? Did they remain the same or change? Were they simply the hamsters on the wheel of the plotline or were plot and characters inextricably joined in a satisfying story?

I’m sure you would have got more from attending the masterclass, if only the company of witty and erudite writers and a mass of like minded enthusiasts, which may be the point of such events anyway. If however you couldn’t make it, I hope the thoughts above may inspire you to think about plot and how your characters need to be integrated with it rather than being bolt-ons to a project development track .

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