Plot . . . or not?

I, like many other budding authors, believed in first time success. Actually, that’s not quite what I mean, because there are many authors whose first novels do well, and deservedly so. In better terms, I believed the ability to write was gifted, not earned. Sounds silly when put like that, but how many times have you heard someone say, ‘everyone’s got a book in them’, or, ‘you should write that as a book, it’ll be really good’? Sure, there are people that have had some great experiences, but the assumption that a good idea is all that’s required to convey it with believability and authenticity on paper is way off.

It wasn’t that long ago that I realised this myself, that the mastery of writing is as much a skill as the construction of plot. Which brings me to the subject matter of today’s post: which is more important, characterisation or plot? It’s a question that raises an important oversight that many new writers battle with, and that’s the craftsmanship of both plot and characterisation. I myself am guilty of putting my all into writing plot, setting scenes in my head like a movie director might, transcribing the mental view down onto paper and letting the protagonists tag along for the ride.

Reading has helped me see where I’ve failed and where the masters have succeeded; once I discovered what I was doing wrong it was much easier to realise what others are doing right, to pinpoint it and capitalise on it. Plot is important, yes sir, but it is gear in a train, not a sole driving force, and I wish I’d realised that sooner. Characterisation, well—that’s the lifeblood of the story, the part the reader latches on to, identifies with, the part that makes them care. There are books that rely almost solely on characterisation—but the other way round? Nah.

This rookie mistake of prioritising plot comes, I think, from the misunderstanding that the mediums of film and paper work in the same way. At first glance they seem to, but they don’t and here’s why: in a film, the protagonist’s point-of-view is presented from a third person vantage point. You, the viewer, are a being in the sky that watches over all that happens in the movie, and your identification with the character comes from their dialogue and actions. Verbal narrative is a rare (and often cheesy) way of presenting the protagonist, whereas in a book, verbal narrative is one of the key methods a writer utilises to put the reader into the protagonist’s shoes, even when the book is written in third person.

Also, in a movie you can see when someone is scared, happy, angry etc. It’s on their face, a reaction to the unfolding scene, a subtlety that we absorb without thinking. That doesn’t exist with writing. The reader needs to know how the protagonist is feeling and why, but simply writing ‘he pulled a sad face’ is the equivalent of the movie director cutting to a close shot of the hero pulling a sad face—it’s too obvious, it’s too clunky and it ruins the flow. So a writer must use good characterisation to present the character in an unobtrusive and identifiable way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling either disassociated or overloaded.

The last difference between a movie and a book is the most obvious: a movie is a visual medium, and requires less effort on the part of its audience. Visual effects, cool music, slo-mo etc engages us and gives us the associative hit of adrenaline/sadness/laughter that we seek from these entertaining escapes. Characterisation can take a back seat when visuals takes over, be it a well-choreographed fight, a huge explosion or incredible CGI. Van Damme wouldn’t have got very far if characterisation was an essential part of cinema.

So in my journey to better myself as an author, I’ve discovered that the art of presenting my story in written form is as much a challenge as creating the story in the first place. I’ve also learned that creating believable and identifiable characters is key to keeping a reader interested, more so than the cleverness of the plot. How to create the kind of characters that stay with a reader long after the final page has been read, I still don’t know. I’m working on it. I think I’m improving—I’m certainly changing—but whether it’s for the better remains to be seen.

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