You’d think there’d be a rule or something. God knows, there are rules for everything else. Is there a percentage or specific technique you have to use when you plot? How important “is” plot and is plot-heavy a bad word?
Plot-driven writers rarely struggle with an overabundance of plot because plot takes precedence over character, but character-driven writers are always struggling with the three biggies.
1. “It’s not a story if it’s not about something.”
2. “Are my people doing enough?”
3. “It’s not exciting.”
And in a huge amount of ways, the reason there isn’t a single pat answer is because there are many, long answers that touch on a lot more than plot.
So let’s look at the first statement—it’s not a story if it’s not about something.
A story shouldn’t just be about two people having dinner, not because you can’t write about two people and dinner, but because there’s a limited readership. If John and Jane eat dinner it actually “is” a story. There’s a beginning, where they decide what to eat, a middle, where they eat, and an end, where they stop eating.
By itself, John and Jane’s dinner isn’t interesting, so maybe the statement needs to be: A story should be about something interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention.
You “want” the dinner in there, in fact—you want to open with the dinner, and that’s okay. You can keep it if you know why you want to keep it.
A. You just like writing about dinner. No reason. It’s good word count and eating is sexy.
Is John feeding Jane strawberries dipped in champagne while she’s straddling him and she’s tearing each one off the green part with a growl and a toss of her head? Then it’s not sexy. Unless your people are actually doing something that an independent reader considers sexy—it’s not, and it needs to be reworked.
Look at the proportion. How much food preparation, food description, and weasel-wording adjectives do you have in there?
Does it start with Jane walking into the kitchen?
Jane walked into the kitchen, pulled out a pan and set it on the stove.
Continue with her getting out some food and cooking it.
Then she opened the refrigerator, pulled out two sirloin steaks she’d bought at the butcher yesterday knowing John would stop by, and deliberated over the butter. Butter wasn’t as healthy as olive oil, but olive oil didn’t taste as good.
--which is guilty of a couple of sins.
There’s no reason for Jane to walk into the kitchen. Dinner with John doesn’t count. The first sentence definitely “shows” Jane getting ready to cook, but it’s stripped. There’s no color or emotion.
What’s going on, other than Jane and her pan? Does she feel anything about John or the situation? And what’s up with the mini info-dump and butter? Are they just leftover thoughts--stuff your mom told you about butter and olive oil that you wanted to get in there because you were writing about steak? And where’s John?
Scenes operate on more than one level. If this is simply a scene about John and Jane eating dinner—and it doesn’t do what you want it to do, then it can condensed.
After John and Jane ate dinner…
…because it’s not important or interesting.
But, you want to keep the scene because it’s important to you.
When you feel something is important, it’s simply your subconscious telling you it “is”. Character-driven writers don’t always know why something is important because until recently plot was way more important--story is about something, remember--which meant there had to be a solid, plot-backed reason for dinner to happen.
You’re writing the scene, wondering why your characters aren’t jumping off the page, wondering if maybe you should have great-aunt Lucia, the half gypsy fortuneteller drop by, or maybe Uncle Benny, the guy who works for the mob. Or maybe you already thought of it and Lucia and Benny, one dog, two cats, John’s childhood friend, Bill, the undercover cop and Busby the flying circus monkey are already sitting around the dinner table waiting for steak.
Little do John and Jane know, that Lucia is really clairvoyant, and can “see” Benny and Bill facing off at the circus where John will try to rescue his friend and Jane will run between John and Benny who will shoot Jane so John can realize just how much he loves her. But luckily, Busby the flying monkey also loves Jane and throws himself in front of her, which knocks her to the ground giving her the appearance of being killed so John and Jane can have their happily ever after.
It’s like that bumper sticker, “Got Plot?” There’s a lot going on.
What’s your gut feeling? You want to show the relationship between John and Jane? Or the inciting incident for the story? The reason the characters aren’t jumping off the page isn’t because it’s lacking plot, it’s because there’s no emotional investment.
Why should I care if Jane uses butter? She’s not a thinker, she hasn’t shown me she’s got hidden depths, and “..knowing John would drop by” what does that mean? Does she hate John, love John, want to kill him?
The scene doesn’t need extra people; it needs focus and the right proportion.
Maybe Jane looks out the window, watching for John’s car or hesitates over the butter because of John. That leans the focus a little more toward John and Jane’s relationship.
Then she opened the refrigerator and pulled out a sirloin steak for her, and a piece of flounder for John. John liked butter, but she hated the thought of him with clogged arteries. Olive oil was healthier for him.
There's a higher proportion of Jane's feelings about John, and she feels a little more controlling.
That’s because John and Jane break up during dinner—he can’t stand her controlling ways and she can’t understand why he doesn’t see it’s her way of showing love.
You can have two people eating dinner if you feel it needs to be in the story, “and” it shows something about the people or starts something in the story—or continues something in the story.
It’s not a story if it’s not about something.
Relationships and characterization are something. Adding in Lucia, Benny and Bill--that's just overkill unless the story you're trying to write is an over the top romantic suspense with comedic elements.
Are my people doing enough?