Yeah, yeah – pretentious name, it’s like 4am and I needed to get this on paper real quick.
I’ve been doing a bit of writing on a variety of projects, zero of them actually useful to this blog but that’s the way it’s going at the moment. Which means I’ve been working a bit less on the back end of things – rewrites and edits – and a bit more on the front end of things – plotting and worldbuilding.
I wanted to talk a bit about a plotting trick that I use sometimes, because I just found a way to conceptualise it for myself and writing blog posts is pretty much the first thing I think to do when something like that happens.
Helps me think through the implications and creates content. Win-win.
Standard disclaimer that I do not in any way think this is a new concept. I’m just coming up with things and metaphors that help me, and I hope they help other people, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship of main characters to plot. The standard wisdom tends to run thus: Your POV character in any given scene should be the person best placed to observe or enact the plot. If you’ve only got the one main character, they should be the person that most of the plot happens to. I support this theory, mainly. It’s a pretty solid way to make sure that you don’t end up with the problem of “this is my main character but they’re absent for these important events and they can’t be or the plot falls apart” – you can switch POVs or change up the main character, depending on the style of the story and the scale of the section they’ll miss. But I feel like this works primarily for the kind of story where your main character really has agency for the story and is one of the principal drivers of the plot.
I just lost a whole lot of you. Please hear me out for a sec. I know – passive main characters are usually death to a story. I’ve given more than one story over to the waste basket of time because there was no way to make the character active and still tell the story I wanted to tell. It turns the whole thing into a goopy pile of bad pacing and randomly-inserted plot points. Trust me, I know that passive protagonists need to be handled with extreme care.
What I’m actually talking about is a story where the protagonist can be extremely active and have all the agency in the world … but can’t really affect the plot at large, at least for a good portion of the story. I’m working on a story with that kind of premise at the moment. It’s likely never going to be published for a variety of reasons, but I definitely want to translate that concept into other stories and develop it more, because it’s fun to play with.
So, all this time, I’ve been thinking of plots like this: You have a main plot, which kinda gets passed between your main or POV characters. Then you have side threads, which sometimes branch off and sometimes run alongside, and also get your main and side characters involved.
But then I was talking to a friend about this plot I was writing and I was thinking about how much the characters are affected by off-screen events. See, the idea of this plot is that the characters are small bit players in the scheme of things, and the larger plot isn’t something they are affecting, it’s something they are desperately trying to survive. It wasn’t until just now that I’d realised I was thinking about this plot structure totally differently to how I usually do. And that was because I’d decoupled plot events to characters.
I think this is useful for thinking of how to structure different POV threads, too. Instead of thinking of each POV as a different plot thread that sort of link across each other, try thinking like this:
You have a big core thread, which is your plot. In the case of the story I’m working on, it’s the villain’s plans. In another story there might not even be a villain; it might be something totally different. But let’s call it the villain’s plans for now.
And then the characters’ threads lay across that every so often. Not every scene they have will be related to the core, in fact, they probably shouldn’t, because otherwise they wouldn’t have anything to do. It’s just that, every so often, they come across something that is an event in the main plot. It looks like foreshadowing in the actual story once it’s written. Then the trick is taking the POV threads and overlaying them on the core plot more and more frequently until the climax, where they ideally get to be party to whatever big event the story is leading up to (or at least to experience it affecting them directly).
It might not be helpful as a visual to anyone else, but I think if I can get this right, it’ll be very useful for writing stories that feel much larger than the characters (especially darker stories with a tone of helplessness or smallness). I’m calling it the “entryway theory” because ideally, instead of being the main plot, the characters get a lot of little doors into the plot, and it’s not until they’ve gone through enough of them that they start to understand the layout of the house, so to speak. I definitely want to try and examine this in more detail, and maybe write a couple of experiments to see how often I need to cross the plot, or whether this can be used for other things. Maybe it’s a useful way to add worldbuilding to stories – especially stories about people that are set against big backdrops – the characters weave across the big events of the world, but they don’t get involved like a traditional plot – it’s just there to be the world that they’re situated in.
I’m going to leave this one here. I don’t really have much else to say about this idea, since I’m only just starting to explore it. I’m definitely going to be playing more in future, though, and seeing just how far I can push this.