Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Establishing a Plot: "Kick the Baby"

You'll notice in movies or books or stories that the basis of every plot has some certain key moments that will move the character from one event to another to show development of the story.  A man by the name of Blake Snyder wrote a book called Save the Cat and he explains that in every movie the protagonist must perform some action at the start to make them likable, to make us want to "root" for them in the unfolding drama. If you write a book, this is true though slightly different. In movies the conflict must be introduced at certain times. The introduction of the protagonist is immediate and the introduction of the conflict that propels the protagonist forwards is soon to follow, generally 20 minutes into the movie. This is often why when people watch older movies like  those from the 50s and 60s that they get so bored. We are used to seeing the plot unfold much faster, and in movies back then this moment of plot acceleration occurred sometimes as late as 45 minutes into the movie. If you watch It's a Wonderful Life you will understand what I mean.

Now obviously in books this works a little differently.

In movies, the unfolding action and imagery is instant, and there's no real "world building" like you'd find in a book, so books unfold a little faster and slower at the same time. Books will often introduce an antagonist early on, but it's not until a few chapters later that the initial conflict finally happens. So at this point the reader understands that character X is "evil" or not good for the protagonist, but we as readers will not see this conflict unfold for at least a few chapters. So this blog will help to show you the pacing involved in producing conflict for the protagonist, with a more general plot pacing lesson to follow.

"Kick the Baby" / "Save the baby" 

Everyone roots for the protagonist, not because they identify with them but because they have evidence of the protagonist's good nature. Generally this good nature is externalized, resulting from a good action the protagonist does for someone else. For example, if protagonist Larry Penbrooke walks out of his Manhattan development project broke as shit and tosses one of his two quarters to the homeless boy that lives on his stoop the audience now knows that Larry is a "good person." If you wanted to make Larry an anti hero, you would then have him giving the quarter to the homeless boy, and then a couple of paragraphs later him strangling another homeless man for giving him bad drugs in a heat of passion. This is all rough exposition, but with the case of anti heroes the audience is first introduced to their good nature, but the weight of the bad nature never totally eclipses the nature of the first good action.

Consequently, for villains the formula is the same, but only reversed. To make the reader immediately identify with the bad nature of the villain they must be introduced in the heat of a negative action, or some detail about them should reveal subtly a negative action or detail that will transpire later on in the narrative. In books the latter is what will happen with villains in most cases. Villain A will be introduced as a good character, but only without the initial action that externalizes their goodness. A few chapters down the road, the villain will then externalize his evil with an evil action, but in a way that the reader can plausibly backtrack the growing menace of the character. Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars for instance manifests his need for control and stability in his growing paranoia fed to him by the emperor, but much before that does Anakin illicit certain emotions that would bring us to believe that he his growing quickly more and more unstable.

As before, like anti-heroes, there can also be anti villains. These are characters that are externally established villains, but at certain points facilitate good actions. In American Gangster, Denzel Washington's character Frank Lucas is obviously entrenched in evil, but he also does things that are kind of nice. Like in one scene he builds for his mom a replica of an old dresser that she once owned but was lost in a fire. It's little moments of sentimentality like those that can cause healthy conflict in characters bringing the reader to ask themselves if the character is truly evil or not.

Plotting of Conflict

I'll be brief here, but I've attached a sample outline of what a solid character plot would look like in the drafting notes of a novel:

  • Chapter 1: Protagonist introduced.
  • Chapter 2: Exposition on the World. 
  • Chapter 3: Villain introduced, conceptually linked to the world as a detail.
  • Chapter 4: Protagonist and Villain Meet
  • Chapter 5: Principal conflict, associated/orchestrated by villain or circumstance.
  • Chapter N: Plot and exposition
  • Growing action to Climax: Protagonist and Villain interact in growing frequency.
  • Resolution: Villain defeated by Protagonist.  

As usual if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer!

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