Monday, 7 November 2011

Why story beats character everytime

Something has to happen – whether you write for page, stage or screen – because if nothing's happening, no-one is caring, no-one is sticking around, everybody is taking their hard-earned time and money and spending it elsewhere.

But story is cheap, right? Real literature is about character right? Stories are just for kids and action movies right?


Story is the foundation of everything

It doesn't matter how fascinating a character is, or how deep they are, or how well developed or good looking, intelligent or sexy - no-one cares. You could meet the most fascinating person in the world but you wouldn't give a monkeys because you'd never know it if nothing happened.

The point is, you can tell a story without character, but you can't tell a character without story.

There are three levels to story

Plot-driven writing has a bad rep. It's not serious literature. It can't be a serious movie if it's narrative drive is plot. Serious literature has to be 'character-driven'.

Don't believe it.

Story is deep, real deep. First there's what happens – the incidents, the scenes, the events. This is what E.M. Forster calls the 'story' – this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Kids love it.

Then there's the 'plot' – what Aristotle calls the 'structure of the incidents' – not just what happens but why it happens. This is harder to do – because one incident has to be a natural and consequential follow-on from all the ones that have gone before it. Harder for you but easier for the reader, because now you are beginning to create narrative drive.

Then we have what Peter Dunne calls the 'story' (as opposed to Forster's notion of story) – the story is who the plot happens to – the effect of the plot on the characters. This is the real story, and this is the real purpose of characters within stories. Shit happens to them, and then we get to see what they're really like, because...

Character is revealed through action

Someone wiser than me once said 'every hero needs a crisis' - because if they don't have a crisis, they're just a regular schmoe. Every dog needs his day. In fact, it doesn't have to be a crisis, it can just be a situation – a character will reveal himself through how he reacts to that situation. You want to really get to know (and develop) your character? Put him through the mill, and see how he shapes up.

Because Aristotle said so...

And I've found no reason to disagree with him.

Don't get me wrong about character - character is king, but story - story is god.