Plotting for Character

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you know I’m a plot girl.

Gotta have a story question. Gotta have a protagonist’s goal driving the story action. Gotta have a strong antagonist. Gotta have progressive conflict and story complication. Gotta build to a rip-roaring, action-packed story climax.

However, there are places in a novel where momentum is going to slow. Somewhere in the middle, the story wants to sag. We can call it any number of things: inertia, writer fatigue, bogging down … whatever suits your fancy.

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, called the central portion of a novel “The Great Swampy Middle” because it’s where so many inexperienced writers sink.

However, in our constant search for ways to mitigate this effect, we need to also understand that there are places in a novel where the momentum should slow. We should not constantly hammer the reader with action or intensity. Doing so lessens the effect and tires reader involvement.

Giving readers places to rest and process what’s been happening is necessary. We don’t want the pacing to stop. We want the pacing to change. We don’t want the story to grow dull and boring. We want the story to become more layered.

One of the dramatic strategies that accomplishes this is picking a place where you deepen or develop character.

It consists of one or two scenes, maybe a transitional conversation between protagonist and mentor/confidant, and it doesn’t really have more than a tenuous connection to the actual story question. It may relate more to a subplot; often it deals with the “inner” arc of change taking place inside the hero.

It could be lifted from the book without seriously affecting the plot.

So, in effect, story action pauses to allow the focus to be placed solely on characterization instead.

Plotting for character can enrich the story. If well done, it delights readers. Usually the ideal place to use it is somewhere in the middle portion of the plot, after an intense event or a long series of action. It peels away character masks and allows readers a glimpse of the individual’s true character.

Be careful, however. The key to this technique’s effectiveness lies in not over-using it. Too much plotting for character sinks the plot. The story can then devolve into character angst and navel-gazing.

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