Writing Excuses 15.16: Balancing Plot and Character
Key points: Balancing plot/pacing and character scenes? Depends on genre, subgenre, and personal style. Upfront character and later payoff? If you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care about the plot. Even when the reader wants to know the answer to a question, getting the answer through the POV of a character who cares is more satisfying. Long form needs more characters than short stories. You may come to a series for the plot, but you stay for the character. Lots of character upfront builds emotional investment which means the ending hits much harder. But it’s sleight-of-hand, because plot forward and character heavy books also have the other side, they just handle it through their lens. How do you decide whether to emphasize plot or character? Thrillers don’t have time for navelgazing, so you have to fit the character stuff in with the rest. Tiny moments of navelgazing! Mix physical beats and emotional beats in every scene. Make sure the reader knows why characters are doing things. How do you plan and structure story to create strong emotional responses? Promises, progress, payoff. Make sure your roadblocks are legitimate. Build expectations. Align your stand-up-and-cheer moment with the culmination of other moments. Connect your readers to the character’s why. Give readers small problems or weaknesses they can relate to.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Balancing Plot and Character.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We are going to pull an intricate balancing act today on our podcast as we talk about balancing between characters and plots. One of our listener questions is how do you find a good balance between plot/pacing and character scenes?
[Howard] You put the plot on one side of the scale…
[Howard] And on the other side of the scale, you place a feather. And…
[Brandon] You’re going to first determine where you want to be as regards to genre, sub genre, your personal style… Like, there is no set balance. Just like if you say, “I want to cook a thing. How much flour should I use?”
[Dan] Well, it depends on the thing.
[Brandon] Well, what’s the thing that you’re going to cook, and what’s your personal style of cooking, and what’s it for? Different stories and different types of stories can have a different balance here.
[Victoria] Yeah, I… Something I’ve become really aware of over the years, like, 16 books, is the fact that my opening acts are more character than plot. They tend to be slower. I always compare it to I am setting the table, or I am putting all of the pieces on the board. I do that in the hope that the price you’re paying in the pacing of the first act leads to the payoff in the third act. But I used to be very self-conscious about it. I used to think that this was inherently bad. Because I had quote unquote slow openings or slow first acts, that I was somehow feeling in that respect. But the fact is, I think that’s why my endings are consistently considered pretty satisfying. Because you put the time into building the characters and into setting that table, playing that board, so that when you get to the plot later, because the fact is, if you don’t care about the characters plot is happening to, we don’t actually care about the plot.
[Howard] If a reader is really invested in knowing the answer to the question… Maybe it’s a mystery, and we’re trying to find out who done it, maybe it’s a science fiction thing, some sort of sense of wonder thing, and the question is how will they ever survive… There’s a question that the reader wants answered, and they’re going to read all the way to the end to get the answer to the question. I find that the answer is more satisfying if it is answered through the point of view of a character who cares about the answer more than the reader does.
[Brandon] This is particularly important for long form, right? I’ve read plenty of short stories where the question is all I cared about. A good Asimov story, I’m not paying much attention to character I’m just going to be like, “How are the three laws screwing things up this time?” But the longer your form gets, the more that reader… That character is going to pull that reader between those chapters. Like Howard said, their passion is going to become a surrogate for our passion.
[Victoria] Well, yeah, it’s relative to the amount of time that you spend with the characters. So, in a short form, where it’s like five or 10,000 words, or micro fiction where it’s a lot shorter, you really have to rely on conceit or the plot twists to be the thing which holds the story up. If you have a 1000 page fantasy novel, then, like, you better care about the characters, because that’s the thing propelling you forward. I also use the series example, which is, every first story in a series that you come to, you come for the plot. Because you don’t know the characters yet. Never, in the history of books… I’m sure somebody can prove me wrong, but that’s the statement I’m going to make right now, has anyone come back to the subsequent books in that series just for plot. You come back to the subsequent books in the series because you are invested now in the character. So, the longer the form, the more the emphasis on character [kind of pulls plot.]
[Brandon] Yeah. Even a plot heavy… Like Agatha Christie style mysteries, after the first one, you’re like, “Oh. I loved this detective. I want to find out more about their adventures.” That’s why you’re coming back [garbled].
[Howard] I really enjoyed Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. When Red Storm Rising came out, I was excited for the exploration of plot and whatever was going to happen. Then was nothing but disappointed when I realized that this was not a…
[Brandon] Jack Ryan.
[Howard] Jack Ryan book. This was something else.
[Brandon] So I kind of take the same perspective you do, Victoria, although it’s different for different books. I find that certain books, I allow myself more time up front with the characters. This, like everything in writing, is less about what’s right and what’s wrong, and more about what are the pros and cons of different styles. I would say a pro of lots of character upfront is that emotional investment, that emotional resonance, hits so much harder by the end. One of the examples is the Stormlight Archive, right? A 1000 page epic fantasy novel, I spent a lot more on character and getting you into those people, so that the ending, where certain things happen to certain characters, is that much more powerful. With a shorter book or a book that’s more of an ensemble cast, sometimes I spend a little less on each character and I focus on there’s the big plot that we’re going to focus on. Because that’s going to keep you going while you’re learning who all these people are. I’m not going to upfront you with 10 different characters for the heist novel.
[Victoria] Also, ensemble casts make a really fascinating opportunity to balance character and plot…
[Victoria] In really interesting ways because you can get pieces of the story from each of them and almost do double the work, like, you get to cheat a little bit. I do think… I mean, I will say, the Stormlight Archives was an educational experience for me, because I was about halfway through book two… And I tend to gravitate towards reading shorter books. I was halfway through book two, and I was like, “Why do I care so much?” Like, someone asked me to pitch it to them, and I had a hard time pitching the plot, but I was like, but, it’s the characters. This is the reason that I’m here. I do find that across most long form and most big fantasy series, it’s because we’re invested in the slow con, the slow growth of the character.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s what I’ve been sitting here thinking, actually… Which things can I pitch, and how can I pitch them? I’m… for whatever reason, Pixar movies is what came to mind. If I were to describe to someone, “What is Toy Story’s about?” It’s about Woody and Buzz becoming friends. Whereas if I’m going to describe A Bug’s Life, it’s about a bunch of bugs getting together to save some ants. It’s very plot heavy versus the other one is very character heavy. That is a good way of deciding for yourself and for your own work, what is it about? If you can boil it down to one sentence, does that sentence that excites you the most have more to do with character or plot?
[Howard] A month ago, during evaluating ideas, I talked about a videogame YouTuber Lazy Purple… A video called Lazy Purple, what it feels like to play Sniper. He did this thing where he talked about his journey in learning how to play this character well and what he was doing wrong and how miserable he was in how much he sucked at playing Sniper. Then he started doing it right, and then he did a quick video montage of what it looks like to everyone else. What it looks like to everyone else is miss, miss, miss… Missing… Missing… Miss miss miss, and then hits every shot. One of those is incredibly interesting and fascinating, and the other one is a story that has some awesome moments in it. Wow, he made that shot. But you don’t know what went into it. In watching it, I was fascinated because… Well, one, I was fascinated because it was nice to see that other people have this problem. But, two, I was fascinated that he had given us a character arc for himself, and that wasn’t what he’d set out to do.
[Victoria] Also, I’m going to make an argument here that we can talk about books that are plot forward and books that are character forward. Each of these is about a sleight-of-hand, a bit of legerdemain, which is that the plot forward books are doing just as much character work, they’re just burying it in a very specific way, where it almost becomes A plot, B plot of it. The character heavy books are doing, when they’re good, are doing a lot of plot work, they’re just handling it through the lens of character.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah, this is totally a false dichotomy, also. This is one I got very frustrated about in my master’s degree program, where they’d talk about our entire genre are what they call plot books. All popular fiction is plot books and all literary fiction is character books. That was very… Like, I think this is all just a false dichotomy. You’re right.
[Brandon] Let’s move this conversation then to how do we individually in the stories we’re telling decide what our balance is between plot and character? When do you decide what you’re going to advance and how? When you decide whether you’re going to have a scene where the character’s just going to go off and think and decompress for a while and do a little bit of this navelgazing, as we might call it, and when do you decide I shouldn’t do that, I should cut that out and just keep us moving?
[Dan] Well, see, writing thrillers, I don’t have time for navelgazing…
[Dan] And have to find ways of fitting all the character stuff into the rest of it. So there can still be the kind of scene-sequel ideas, but it still has to be moving things along.
[Victoria] I like to hide tiny moments of navelgazing… I think a little bit of navelgazing goes a really long way. I think that there is always time for those moments of introspection along with the action. I like to pair them, because I think probably my biggest personal phobia when I’m writing is being bored. That’s why I’m very sensitive to slowing the story down too much. I’d rather fold it in along with something else. But I definitely, when I write scenes, I sit down and I think what are the physical beats of this scene and what are the emotional beats of this scene. I make sure that every scene that I have is doing both. Because I think that there’s a way to pull off both in most scenes.
[Brandon] Yeah. A lot of your strongest scenes are where you sit down and say, I can have the character think about this problem for a while or I could come up with some sort of plot sequence that is a minor plot sequence where they’re trying to achieve something that really clearly shows what their emotional state is. While they’re doing it, you are also putting them… You in their head and showing off how they’re feeling.
[Howard] There’s a point at the end of Empire Strikes Back where we are queuing up the plot for the beginning of Return of the Jedi. Han is about to be frozen in Carbonite, and we are very, very plot forward, and we have one of my favorite character moments of all time, which is when Leia says, “I love you,” and Han says, “I know.” So, was that plot? Was that character? Was that… That is a scene that is serving both functions, and after you’ve seen the whole trilogy and you know… Spoiler alert. We rescue Han. Once you know the way the shape of the story is, that becomes a stand-up-and-cheer moment. Because Leia has completed a portion of her arc, and Han has completed a portion of his.
[Victoria] I’m going to argue this is one of the greatest strengths of genre and writing science fiction and fantasy, is that we get to fold those introspective moments into a construct that can be very exciting, and it can be…
[Victoria] We don’t have to choose between plot or character in the way that a lot of realism and liter… Quote unquote literary fiction would force you to pick.
[Dan] So… I’m trying to think of a good answer to Brandon’s question.
[Dan] Because I don’t know… I don’t know if I have one. But one thing that I always tell students when I talk to them is that I need to know why their characters are doing what they’re doing. It’s not enough for me to see them participating in the plot. How is the plot affecting them? Right? So when I do have a scene that is this character’s going to go off and think about what’s going on, more often than not, it’s something like a moral compromise, a… Am I willing to take this next step that I don’t want to take? Which is very plot heavy, but through that lens of character. So, for getting all of that character emotional reaction stuff, then that balances out the plot.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is actually a show.
[Dan] Oh. Which one?
[Dan] I love Chernobyl. This is my favorite TV show in a long time. It’s an interesting one for this because while it has, let’s say four fairly strong characters in it, I can’t tell you any of their names.
[Dan] It does a great job of portraying a very large story through very personal details, focusing on characters without really giving you more than like I said, three or four strong character through lines. But, best TV show I have seen in a very long time. Relentlessly bleak. And depressing. Which is absolutely my wheelhouse. So, practice some self-care with one… With this one. If you know going in that the episode about how they need to…
[Howard] Put down the dogs?
[Dan] Euthanize the dogs… If that’s going to get you, then don’t watch it. But it was such a beautiful, wonderful, depressing masterpiece.
[Brandon] And, on that note…
[Brandon] No, um… How… Question, actually, segues right really well into it. How do you plan and structure a story to create strong emotional responses from the reader?
[Dan] You gotta euthanize those dogs.
[Victoria] Please don’t euthanize any dogs. You can kill as many people as you want in your books. The moment there’s a lot of animal death, I am out of that ship. But…
[Brandon] So, I would say that a big part of this is also the promises, progress, payoff thing that we talk about a lot. If you want the strong emotional response, you have to show the reader something they want to have. Which is often a character making a great decision, or characters overcoming their flaws or getting together, whatever it is, you want to give them the promise and make them really want that. Part of that is also making sure that the reason the characters can’t have it right now is legitimate, right? That they’re going to… If the reader is like, “This is… There’s no legit reason these two characters would be a part, they are totally in love, it’s stupid that they continue to be apart,” then you’re not… You’re going to get the wrong emotional response. So. Promises. Make it clear why they can’t have it. Then give us teases as you progress us toward it, so that when it happens, you get a stand-up-and-cheer moment.
[Dan] That’s all about building expectations. You have to let them know what could happen, you have to let them know what the stakes are. Because if you just give us two characters with no context at all, I don’t know if they’re going to fall in love or if they’re going to kill each other or if they’re… What that relationship is. Establish those expectations and give us things to hope for and things to be afraid of.
[Howard] I think the Hollywood Formula, when we talked… Way back in Season Six with Lou Anders about it, part of this lies in alignment. You take your stand-up-and-cheer moment. If you take it out of context and you place it so that it is out of alignment with other things, we don’t stand up and cheer as hard. But if it happens right alongside… Surprising yet inevitable. If it happens right alongside the culmination of other moments, it hits harder. You align things so that they hit harder. You’ve got a Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall that we know is going to go off, everybody’s expecting that, when it happens, that isn’t inherently satisfying. It’s satisfying, it’s an emotional beat, if it is aligned with somebody’s character arc doing something that is difficult or that is wonderful.
[Victoria] I’m going to argue that for me, it comes all the way back to character every time. It comes back to understanding your characters, it comes back to rooting for them, and rooting for them comes back to motive. It is never, and Dan, you were talking about this a little bit, it is never what we do, it’s why we do it. I think sometimes when I don’t really care about a character’s outcome or when I don’t care about their journey, it’s not because they’re not doing interesting things, it’s because I’m not connecting to the why of what they’re doing. I think you can write terrible people doing terrible things, and if we, as the reader, can connect to the why of it, we are emotionally invested. I’ve had characters that have died after being on page 4 a paragraph, and I can get people to care about them because we have to understand… They have to feel real. They have to feel well-rounded. And we have to get why they’re doing what they’re doing. World domination’s not a very tangible thing for us to relate to. Jealousy, covetousness, feeling slighted. I like to zone in when I’m making my characters and really look for the small problems. Look for the pettiness, look for the weaknesses that I feel like my readers are going to be able to relate to. Because we rarely see ourselves in the good things.
[Victoria] We don’t really look at that hero and be like, “I see myself like that hero on their strapping journey.” No, we like look at people and we see their weaknesses and we understand them. So really drilling down to your character and understanding what drives them. It’s not just about what drives the plot, but what drives your characters through the plot.
[Dan] There’s a scene in the very first episode of Community. First episode, first season, where he’s trying to talk about empathy with people, and he says, “We are empathetic creatures, and I know that because I can tell you that this pencil’s name is Todd, and then you will be sad when I break it.” Then he breaks it, and you immediately feel sad. So it doesn’t take much to get people to love someone. But you do have to put in that work.
[Brandon] We are out of time this week. Victoria, you have some homework for us.
[Victoria] I do, I do. I started to talk a little bit about drilling down, and this homework is in the interest of drilling down towards your characters. If you have a character, or if you want to build a character, if you want to examine one you’ve already written or you want to create one from scratch, I want to challenge you to create a… Basically, a mythos for your character, using three pillars. I want you to figure out what it is your character fears, what is your character wants, and what it is they are willing to do to get it. Now, once you have these three concepts, and you have the beginnings of your character, I want you to use these concepts to build your character a mantra. Either if there’s a will, there’s a way. If a thing is worth having, it is worth taking. A thing that they believe is an absolute. Then, over the course of the story, if you choose to put this character in a story, your story goal is to figure out how to make the character break the mantra you have given them. How to find their tensile strength? But start with those three questions. See if you can start to build your character from these three pillars, and find out what makes them tick.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.