Maybe It’s Not Your Plot

Image: a person walking on a floor which is decorated with curved patterns and illuminated with light from a multi-colored window.
“Walking the Labyrinth” by zoxcleb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

Recently, I presented at a virtual summit for writers entitled “Escape the Plot Forest”—a full week of talks with nearly 30 speakers, with 3,000 people registered. Which is ample evidence of what pretty much every independent editor and book coach knows: Plot is the number one thing novelists and would-be novelists tend to struggle with, and it’s what people come to us for help with, day after day.

But eight times out of ten, as I see it, that’s not really the problem at all. The problem is that these writers don’t understand their protagonist’s character arc.

Because while a plot full of trouble, twists, suspense, and reveals will keep the reader turning the pages, in the end, it’s not the external events of the story that make a novel feel meaningful—it’s the internal journey that the protagonist has made along the way.

Recently, I was talking with one of my mentors, the book coach Jennie Nash, about this business of character arc—what I call “Centering the Heart.” It is key to what I teach in my course, Story Medicine, and central to both of our practices as book coaches.

I asked Jennie why she thought so many people came to us seeking help with their plot when, in reality, it was their character arc they needed help with. Why did she think this issue was so nonobvious?

Jennie laughed and said, “Well, that’s the whole question, isn’t it?” And went on to note something I found pretty profound: As people, we’re often unaware of what we’re going through emotionally. Emotions are messy and inconvenient, and we’re often so focused on what we have to do each day to put food on the table that whatever’s going on inside us…lies somewhere just below the surface of our awareness.

I think the same is true of character arc in a novel: It’s not as obvious as the events of the plot. If someone challenged you to sum up the character arc of a book you recently read and loved, you probably couldn’t do it.

But long after you’ve forgotten the events of the plot, you’ll remember how that book made you feel—and whatever strong emotions that story evoked, I can virtually guarantee you, were an effect of its character arc.

Character arc is often the key to the other big thing writers tend to struggle with, which is motivation. Because when the internal journey your protagonist takes in the course of their story aligns clearly with some deep personal truth of your own, that’s where the lights really come on with a novel.

Which is to say, that’s when writing it begins to feel urgent and meaningful. Because that’s when you go beyond simply telling a story to sharing real truths of your own life, the truths of your heart.

If you’re one of those novelists struggling with your plot, consider the following questions:

1. What is the internal journey your protagonist makes in this story?

Often writers will respond to this with something vague like, “I think she learns something about self-love, and about trusting others.” But that’s nearly specific enough to evoke strong emotions in the reader, or to produce the sense of your novel having been meaningful to them in the end.

In order to produce those kinds of strong emotions, and that sense of meaning, the journey your protagonist makes has to be specific: from self-loathing to self-love. From feeling like she can only depend on herself to learning to trust others.

And a big part of this equation is setting up your story so that you’re making it clear, at the beginning, what your protagonist’s internal issue really is. Because if there’s “nothing wrong” with your protagonist, there’s no room for this character to move, no clear direction for them grow in over the course of the story to come.

2. How do the major events of this story push my protagonist to grow and change?

This is where character arc really becomes structural. Because plot, by itself, can go in virtually any direction, like Jorge Luis Borges’s “garden of forking paths.” Character arc is the limiting factor—the one that will turn your maze, with all those possible dead ends, into a labyrinth, which only leads just one place: To the heart of the story.

If you’re struggling with whether to include a given event in your novel, ask yourself: Does this event touch in a clear way on my protagonist’s character arc? Or could it?

If so great: include it in your story. But if not, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.

3. Does this character arc intersect in some clear way with the truths of my own life?

As readers, we intuitively recognize when the story is personal for the author. Meaning, we recognize that we’re not just in a story based on other stories, but in a story based on the truth of someone’s life. And this is true even if you’re writing a story that has very little to do, on the surface, with your own personal history.

For instance, maybe you’re writing a sci-fi novel about a young man whose best friend was kidnapped by interstellar smugglers. One option would be to go with a familiar, recycled character arc: the protagonist who starts off feeling like a coward, and goes on to discover his own courage and confront the man who kidnapped his best friend.

A stronger tactic with this scenario would be to work out an arc more clearly centered in the truths of your own life. Say, for example, that these interstellar smugglers have actually been terrorizing the protagonist’s region of space for years, and this taps into your own history of being bullied as a kid, and the strong emotions you have around that.

Now it’s personal for you, so when the protagonist finally confronts that antagonist, the leader of this gang of smugglers, at the climax of the story, a lot of emotional power will be unleashed, because you’ll be confronting that bully, and all bullies, in a way you never got to in real life.

And at the end of the day? A strong character arc makes for a strong novel—whatever the events of the plot may be.

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