Saturday, December 31, 2011

Running in the Dark: Organic Structure for Character-driven stories Part 3 (creating story events)

GMC is Goal, Motivation and Conflict. There are many books and workshops on variations of GMC and how to use it. What do they want? 2) Why do they want it? 3) And why can't they have it? Dwight Swain did something similar in Techniques of the Selling Writer, but called it motivation-reaction units. 1) What causes something to happen? 2) What happens in reaction to that stimulus? In his ground-breaking structural work, Story, McKee talks about how turning points spin the story and increase momentum.

Each technique is a valid way to look at plot. In a plot-driven story, event B is always caused by event A. So GMC is pretty much A>B>C>A>B>C, Motivation-reaction units are A>B>A>B and Turning Points are A>B>C>XX>A>B>C>XX2. Plots tend to be linear and look a little like algebra.

In other words—most plots are based on purely logical progression and can be separated from character, because the events happen in an easily visible way that make sense to an outside observer.

Now let’s throw some character into that. Character is a process of becoming. It changes according to who is looking at the character, when and why. And changes again--internally and externally--when new core events form over old ones. An emphasis on plot without understanding the way character works produces characters that flow out of plot instead of plots that flow out of character. Which makes it hard to write organically because while the under-structure is logical, that logic is the result of many plot threads coming together that don't always appear logical on the outside, even though they’re true to your character's internal logic.

It's contingent causation. The accumulated effect of many things to produce a desired result.

There are two kinds of causation. Logical and contingent/intuitive.

Let’s take a look at logical progression before we move on to contingent/intuitive.

In a straight-line plot where characters are created to fill the needs of the plot--let’s make up a simple plot to use as an example? A drives B.

Johnny wants a dog.(A) He asks his mother, who says he has to earn money to buy a dog. He does,(B) and she gets him a dog.

This is the kind of plot that would come to you full-formed, or as something you’d like to do. “I want to write a story about a boy who wants a dog, what he does to get the dog, and his HEA.” The plot needs a boy, and whether that boy is the kid next door, or a street kid, what matters overall is that he’s a kid.

Logical progression in an organic plot is also a little like algebra, although instead of the more straight forward, A triggers B triggers C, or A triggers B triggers A triggers B, it’s actually…

…where the two characters in your plot intersect, or the primary character touches a story event they create a combination. K (for kid)+ C (for cat)  = (what happens) or X

If you take out the cat and add a dog or ferret, the plot can change and go differently but still make perfect sense. The elements of the story are interchangeable.

Now let’s give the boy a core event and some contingent causation.

He wanted a dog two years ago and asked his dad. His dad said yes and after saving and scrimping to buy a dog, on the way home from the breeder someone broadsides their car. His father is almost torn in half because of the way the car accordions, the boy is thrown clear and the dog is trapped. The car catches on fire and his father and the dog both die.

Let’s also give the mother, a strong secondary character, a core event. And make it the same event to boost the emotional component.

Two years ago, she was a stay at home mom. She had a nice house, a minivan and had just talked her husband (a really nice guy with a good job) into finishing the garage as a family room. When her husband dies, her son goes into the hospital. Insurance pays for his care and the car. But there’s a funeral and bills don’t stop coming. After her son gets out, there’s no money coming in, but she has a kid, a mortgage, a car payment, utility bills, food and gas. The insurance doesn’t last long. Social security kicks in but the boy is almost fourteen. In two years, her child benefits will end. She’s grieving and hurting, and confused, and now her whole life has changed because she has to be strong, find a job that pays enough to support the two of them and she has no skills.

Her son’s character is a circle with ripples coming out of it that were formed by his core event. His desire for a dog killed his father and the dog. His need did “this” to his mother. He is the cause of all their problems.
After two years, what he wants more than anything is to go back in time and fix things. He wants a dog. This time, he’ll save it, and it’ll live and thrive and things will be alright again.

---He asks his mom for a dog.

His mom’s character resents the dog. It was the dog that killed her husband and changed their life. She’s about to lose the house, they can’t live on what she makes, and it’s all because of this “dog”. Her husband went to get a dog, and he died. She loved him, and now he’s gone. He abandoned her for a dog.

When her son asks for a dog, it touches her on one of the outer ripples of her character. Depending on where--and let’s say the ring spins and the part facing her son right now is “G”, the part of her that’s tired and resentful after a long day at work, knows better, but can’t stop feeling sorry for herself—-it’s going to intersect with what her son is facing her with. And let’s call that part of his ripple, “A”. The part of him that is desperate to fix things through re-living events the way they should have gone.

So the intersection of two characters create a situation where the mom’s tired, resentful, self-pity collides with the kid’s desperation to fix things through making everything right again. Pieces of the core event “near” the intersection also have a bearing on the event in a lesser way. If it's the mom’s anger that her husband left her, it might translate into fear a dog will cause her son to die. If it's the son’s guilt over wanting a dog in the first place, it might translate into anger that his mother is trying to stop him from fixing things.

It’s still recognizable as the original plot. Boy wants dog. But colliding core events have now “created” a story event, AND fleshed it out with emotions and secondary emotions.

The intersection of two characters with core events, creates organic plot.

Next: More on contingent causation and three dimensional thinking


maggieblackbird said...

I read through this the other day because I'm in a workshop that is a bit confusing right now and this really helped me find my GMC. It's not the strongest GMC, but I'm finding it fits the characters.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

jodi said...

de nada, Maggie. God, I hope it's not one of mine, lol.