There are two areas where writing can really fall down: Integrating plot and character arcs, and developing a theme. This post is about plot and character arcs. I keep seeing stories with colorful characters and well-formed plots that could have been great, but aren’t, because the characters and the plot are each doing their own thing. I keep seeing writers worrying about grammar, pretty sentences, and plot holes when plot and character aren’t working together, which is like giving a manicure to someone with a gaping chest wound.
A character arc is how a character, a relationship, or some personified entity such as a nation or humanity as a whole, changes or fails to change. (Or, in medieval fiction, including Beowulf and Le Morte’ de Arthur, succeeds or fails in resisting change. Back then, change was bad.) Some genres, including comedy, mystery, and horror, don’t need a character arc. The hard-boiled detective harks back to Beowulf, and resists change, or struggles just to stay (morally) where he is. But most great comedies, from Don Quixote to The Simpsons, have character arcs, and so do many of the best stories in all genres.
You may have learned in a writing class that a story has a protagonist with a problem, who overcomes (or fails to overcome) that problem in the end. But having a problem, a plot, a climax, and a resolution is not enough to make a great story. Even having all those things, and interesting and/or funny characters all with their own character arcs, is still usually not enough.
There are two further steps that can be taken:
1, The story is really about the protagonist confronting a more-important longstanding personal issue (the character arc) in the process of overcoming the plot problem. The plot isn’t just any old obstacle; it’s one that makes the character confront that personal problem. This is about as far as you can go if you have an epic in which little people tackle big problems, like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace.
2. Something I don’t recall seeing in books on writing, but which shows up in a large percentage of great short stories, is that the story is more persuasive if the plot problem itself was caused by that more-important personal problem.
Why? One theory is that you want to make the story as self-contained as possible. Open loops, causal dependencies on events outside the story and outside the author’s control, make it more difficult for the author to control the meaning and theme of the story. (Noir and existentialist stories deliberately defy this principle to portray reality as meaningless and unsolvable – that’s why no one ever finds the Maltese Falcon, and you never learn why they’re waiting for Godot. Novels have a related but more complex pattern, because they have many subplots and many character arcs. In a novel, an author closes loops by connecting them to other things inside the novel: One character arc causes plot which causes another character arc, and so on, so that the novel is a tapestry of inter-related characters and plots. There is likely, however, to be one big plot problem and one big character arc that are tightly linked.)
My other theory is simply that it prioritizes character over plot. The character problem causes the plot problem; solving the character problem solves the plot problem. Characters are more important than plot.
Step 1 makes the character arc depend on the plot. Step 2 makes the plot depend on the character arc, closing the loop and making the story completely self-contained. That gives us the following relationship between plot and character:
-character problem creates plot problem
-character tries to solve plot problem
-doing so forces character to solve (or fail to solve) the character problem
-the resolution to the character problem is made physically, tangibly manifest in the resolution to the plot problem
That gives you the canonical way to write a short story: Figure out the longstanding root problem; show how that problem manifests itself in a temporary, surface plot problem for the protagonist; show that the plot problem makes it necessary to solve the root problem; show the solution to the root problem in a concrete way in the solution to the plot problem. Then go back and throw out everything that doesn’t contribute to that sequence.
The character problem drives the plot; the plot leads to the resolution of the character arc, and the character resolution is symbolized by the plot resolution. The character arc doesn’t have to involve a character flaw, and it doesn’t have to be resolved. In some of stories I’ve read, someone fails to overcome a character flaw. There are further variations on the pattern. Existentialist fiction is a degenerate case of the pattern, in which the character’s problem is being human, an insurmountable plot problem arises from that, and the resolution is to realize there is no resolution.
Even doing all that still isn’t enough to make a great story. A great story has a theme or two or three. Maybe I’ll write a post about theme later, if I can figure it out.