Character and Plot 4: A Conspiracy of Coincidences

The subject of coincidence in plotting is a thorny one. Many years ago, a TV development executive told me that one of the key plot flaws they asked their script readers to look out for in a sample script was coincidence. If the story hinged on it or there was a pattern of rather-too-convenient events or coincidences, then more than likely the script would get the thumbs down. A little harsh, perhaps, but their view was that the presence of coincidences in a story would invariably lead to two killer audience complaints: ‘the plot was contrived’ or ‘the characters weren’t believable‘.

Before the outcry begins, let me be clear that we’re not talking about the merely fantastical or serendipitous here: we’re talking about the type of plot coincidence in which it is clear that an author has essentially attempted to ram a square character into a round plot hole or vice versa.

Unit Objectives 

Take our two characters from ‘The Terrible Twos’: in the last post we left Character A battling her spontaneous combustion demons and trying to prevent Character B from being on stage—two interesting dilemmas (and obstacles to Character A’s objectives) keeping the audience engaged. So how do you think the members of the audience will feel if any or all of the following happens?

 

(1)    Character A states that she has been suddenly and miraculously cured of her fear of bursting into flames and sits down; or

(2)    She sits on the chair, and the whole ‘spontaneous combustion’ thing is conveniently ignored; and/ or

(3)    A letter arrives from Character B telling us that she’s decided to move permanently to the Caribbean and won’t be coming back.

Fair enough, these ‘coincidences’ may seem a little too obvious, but the fact is that the more complex the story, the easier it can be to fall into the coincidence trap. You know you need a character to be at a certain place at a certain point in the story, and you just keep hammering away until you get them there, ignoring the instinct that is telling you loudly and clearly that something is just not quite right. We’ve all done it, and hitting that kind of plotting block can be hugely frustrating for a writer.

One of best ways of sorting out these structural blips is to play the objective: this time not just the super-objective which drives the overall emotional arc of the story, but the small scene or unit objectives we spoke about earlier.

So how do we get at these ‘unit objectives’ and how can they help with plotting our story?

 

Essentially unit objectives derive from those other all-important dramatic building blocks: character and character choice. Each move, each action should involve your character in a choice. Whether the impetus behind it is conscious or sub-conscious is immaterial, but it should come from the character asking her or himself: what do I want to achieve and how do I make it happen?

Let’s assume Character A above has reached crisis point: she needs to get rid of her ‘spontaneous combustion’ fear in order to achieve her super-objective. Perhaps hypnosis is the answer? But how to get Character A and a hypnotist together at this juncture? If she leaves the building, Character B will take her seat and A’s super-objective is finished. We can’t have our hypnotist simply turn up in a ‘here’s-one-I-called-earlier’ sort of way—that really would be a coincidence! But what if A could persuade someone to fetch one for her? What if she could somehow even manage to persuade Character B to fetch the hypnotist, thereby unwittingly causing B’s own downfall? Now that would be a psychologically interesting scenario. So next question, what strategy should Character A use to persuade Character B: seduction, bribery, brute force or all of the above? And what to do if Character B doesn’t take the bait?

 

As you can see, each choice a character makes leads to another question and another choice. It also clearly pinpoints the intersection of character and plot because Character A’s answer to each question posed and each strategy choice will be determined by what type of person she is. We’ll look at the whole issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that as long as A remains within character, then the action will push forward naturally and organically and accusations of authorial manipulation or contrivance can be avoided.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget that in building a story, you are not only dealing with one character’s objectives. Other characters, even minor ones, have objectives too, and their objectives can provide useful obstacles or assistance to help you weave what Sir Walter Scott called a ‘tangled web’ to keep your main characters under pressure (it’s that emotional arc again) and your readers turning the pages.

Happy plotting!

 

Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings us back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.