Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Savory Writing: Character and Plot

The first step in creating memorable stories, essays, and screenplays is my idea journal where I write the title, initial character names, brief biographical sketches, character wants, story premise, and possible resolutions.

I make the connection between writing and cooking because of my love of Southern home-cooked meals, observing my granny make coffee in her old-fashioned stovetop percolator, skillet spoon bread, and after church Sunday family dinners at granny’s house.

Each of these scenarios is similar to writing in that my granny, mother, and various family members began with an idea. They might have planned it out mentally or jotted down their shopping list before going to the grocery store.

Plot/Cause and Effect. Writers must double-check that their story makes sense, and that all the scenes move forward. Similar to cooking, the circumstances (ingredients) must change between the beginning and the end of each scene or chapter. The story or chapter is likely to hold reader interest if all of the ingredients and seasonings are balanced.

All meals aren’t created equal. Each time we prepare a meal, we seek to experiment which leads to improvement. Each time I sit down to write or stand at the kitchen countertop to prepare a meal, I add something new to push both to the next level.

How do we define plot? A plot is a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. If it is a plot, we ask “why?”

With this in mind, we return to preparing our story. My protagonist finds a recipe for his granny or aunt’s Southern Surprise Chicken Soup, and sets off to the grocery store to buy the listed ingredients. This is a good start, but I need to expand the idea so that it’s interesting and would hold a reader’s attention over the course of a short story. My male protagonist, with index card in hand, sets out for the grocery store, and then along the way he encounters an unforeseen obstacle that will test him. In order to hold my readers’ interest, this surprise obstacle must be realistic and not plotted for the sake of advancing the story. The king in our plot example died, and because the queen was grief-stricken, she followed him into the afterlife.

How can writers apply this example to their own writing? Readers read to escape. Readers read to learn. Readers read to find parallels in their lives to what’s written on the page or hand-held device. What started as a simple story of making soup takes on new meaning when we introduce conflict and raise the stakes. On the way to the store, our protagonist’s journey is temporarily interrupted, and he has to make a choice. Does he get involved with the unexpected source of conflict and possible character growth, or continue along his path?

Let’s return to our soup preparation in our fully stocked and modern kitchen. As we're preparing our soup with the listed ingredients, we realize that something is missing – a spice, perhaps, and we must improvise. Our hero, too, must improvise. If he ignores the source of conflict, he’s forever changed. If he participates, alters, and/or counterattacks, he’s changed also. Action and inaction originate from a character’s personality. Getting involved with this conflict is a decision that he must deal with, and conversely, walking away is decision that might forever haunt him. This is where we see the character and ourselves in action. Readers learn more about the character, and we see what we’re able to do in the kitchen, against the clock, as our dinner guests are en route to the potluck dinner. Is the character resourceful, pessimistic, or on the brink of tears?

At this point in our story and soup, ingredients and story elements are heating up. We see the vapor rising, the aroma fills the kitchen and the surrounding rooms. We adjust the fire, stir in additional vegetables, and look over at the cutting board once we realize that we’ve not added the chopped parsley and cilantro. We toss a handful inside our soup pot and stir.

Our protagonist, if he’s three-dimensional and realistic, can’t foresee the obstacle. He must adapt as it unfolds. It must appear natural and effortless for the reader. Writers must play fair with readers, or they’ll walk away from a story. The hook, or story promise, is why readers choose a certain story over another.

If we’ve promised Southern Surprise Chicken Soup, the surprise shouldn’t be that it’s beef or tofu. It’s an implied contract with our dinner guests, and we will be held accountable.

Midway through our story and soup preparation, we keep an eye out for errant insects, attention-seeking family members, and red herrings. There will always be someone or something competing for our attention in the kitchen, while we’re writing, or reading a story. With a careful symphony of ingredients, story elements, and revision, we are on our way to creating a robust soup that will leave our guests hungry for seconds and a story that keep readers engaged.

Our end goal is to have created a savory soup and memorable story. We dash about the kitchen looking for last minute accents and flavor boosts. We set up the table and flatware. We ask ourselves if candles would be over the top for our simple potluck dinner with high school and college friends.

Writers, too, must stand back and examine the setting, plot, characters, tone, and voice of the creative work. Are all the necessary people, places, and events on stage and the page?

How does the final product smell and taste? Is it a beautiful bouquet or something we must add salt or pepper to after the fact? At story’s end, is there a reward for our readers? Will readers be satisfied or left with more questions than when they began? Did we accomplish our story goal? If not, there’s always next time to improve our writing.

No comments: