Recently I talked about the difference between a character-based story or a plot-based one, so let’s look more closely at how it can be done—use Save the Cat! of course!
Opening Image In a character-based story, you must show a distinct character arc. Your opening image should show your character with significant lack in their life so in the final image the reader can see how far the MC (main character) has come. If you’re developing a villain, the same principle holds true—except instead of building your MC up to come to a positive, improved self, you will tear him down until there is no choice but for the MC to be who they have become. (A fantastic example of the creation of a villain is Penguin from the Batman universe.)
For a plot-based novel, you need to show the problem in the opening image, and show its resolution in the final.
Theme In a character-driven story, the theme is usually spoken by a secondary character and represents the life lesson the main character needs to learn.
In a plot-driven story, the theme can be spoken or read by anyone, or it can be seen on a document—what’s important is that the reader have a clue as to what will actually solve the problem in the end.
Set-Up For a character-driven story, the set-up will establish the MC’s life as it is (status quo) and show quite clearly what’s lacking.
In a plot-driven story, we meet the main characters and are introduced to the “problem”—a killer, the threat of an assassination or annihilation, etc.
Catalyst Make your catalyst profound in its challenge. This is a life-changing event where the MC has no choice but to change if they move forward. They should know they will not/can not come back from this adventure without changing—and if they don’t know it yet, you and your reader should. The best kind of catalysts are the ones that allow a way to stay, to even provide excellent reasons for the MC to stay in their status quo world. The opportunity to accept or reject the invitation to adventure, is what provides the tension or stretch—and that’s where character growth happens.
The catalyst for a plot novel also provides a choice—but it’s not going to give anyone personal growth. The choice here is meant to complicate the plot development. There’s a right choice, or path, but there’s also a second appealing (and easier) path to take. Of course, the good story always takes the difficult path!
Debate Think about the most difficult decision you’ve ever made. How many people did you go to for advice? How many times did you return to them? Did you make lists, read articles that spoke to your situation, or pray? Your character must do everything you would do. Some people will give them bad advice, some will give good—but your character should not come to the decision easily because choosing to move forward will mean going against their natural inclination. People generally like to stay the same. Even when they talk about changing or doing something awesome, most won’t go through it. It’s that whole Newton’s 3rdLaw thing. Eventually, the need to embark on the adventure is too compelling to ignore.
The Debate looks quite different in a plot-based story. Instead of going back and forth debating whether to accept the invitation to adventure, the plot story’s debate is a time of discovery. It’s during this time that the characters will uncover a secret or clue; they’ll start down the wrong path, only to discover they have to go back and try again; they’ll test the trustworthiness of the other players—all this to highlight the plot’s complications.
Break into 2 The character makes a choice and steps into the unknown, willingly leaving their past behind.
The landscape has changed; anything is possible now as the plot takes shape and the pacing picks up.
B-Story This is where we meet the character that’s going to help the MC learn the lesson of their story (the theme.) I call this the character foil; this secondary character works like a mirror for the MC, helping them to see their shortcomings and planting the seeds that will eventually blossom into change.
A sub-plot or secondary storyline is introduced into the plot-based story that will either complicate or aid in the main storyline—or, it will be both!
Fun & Games This section is similar for both plot and character-based stories. It’s a time for development, learning and exploration.
Midpoint For the character story, the Midpoint is your MC’s big chance to fix their problem the wrong way. Despite all they’ve learned, or how they’ve grown during the Fun & Games, they’re still going to fall on old behavior when push comes to shove. Now they need to change/learn/grow, if they’re going to have any hope of finally achieving their goal—but it’s not going to be easy.
In a plot story, the Midpoint is a pivotal moment that forces the characters to recognize the elephants in the room. It’s no longer “fun and games,”—things have just gotten really real.
Bad Guys Close In For a MC, this beat is where their shortcoming (and/or the thing they need to learn) begins to get in the way of continued friendship and support. Or, if they’re already isolated, their efforts are not good enough. Even if this is a positive moment for the MC, their win won’t feel satisfying because while they’re winning at X, they’re losing Y and Z.
Usually this beat is quite literal in a plot story. Every obstacle possible is thrown in the way of the plot goal until it begins to feel as if there’s no way to achieve that goal.
All is Lost Having lost all, or gained what they thought they wanted only to lose what was most important (speaking to theme), the MC is forced to face their own shortcomings. It’s the death of their innocence; the death of their mentor; the death of their hopes and dreams—as they were—and the MC is left with only themselves to blame or to save.
In a plot story, this is the moment when the reader thinks there’s no possible way for the plot goal to be achieved. Everything’s already been tried. There’s probably been a death or two, but soon there might be a lot more!
Dark Night of the Soul At their lowest point, the MC finally must face their own devil. In order to get what they want, they’re going to have to change, and since what they want is their driving force, they’ll eventually come to realize that they’re willing to do anything—even change—in order to reach their goal.
In a plot story, the characters experience something similar to the character-driven story, except it’s not their own personal flaws they need to overcome, it’s their approach, their plans, or their information. They will need to make the appropriate adjustments, inevitably revealing the true nature of their challengers.
Break into 3 The MC has done the hard work and realizes they need to change in order to get what they want. They move into the last act, feeling ready and capable of doing what must be done.
Armed with new information and confident they’re finally on the right path, the characters in a plot story move into act three with the end in sight.
Finale a) The MC rebuilds their friendships and relationships by assuring everyone they’ve finally learned their lesson and have changed. b) The MC tries again for their goal, but when push comes to shove, they’re not quite in harmony with the lesson they’ve learned as their old behavior rears its ugly head. c) It’s not enough to have changed a “little bit,” and the MC still isn’t capable of getting it right. d) It looks as if the MC is defeated, like there’s no way they can come back from this latest blow. But they dig down deep, knowing with all their being that this time, they have to do or be better. e) The MC, humbled but also empowered by their newfound self, tries again—and finally succeeds.
a) The team is gathered, assured that this time they have everything they need to succeed. b) They make a valiant attempt to achieve their goal—but there’s that one bit of info they didn’t have, or that one traitor in their midst, or that one skill or weapon they didn’t use. c) Their plan fails. d) Someone knows the truth. Someone has the skill. The plot goal is bigger than anyone and it must be achieved, “or else.” e) Putting everything on the line, the team tries again—and finally succeeds.
Final Image The main character has grown and changed in meaningful ways and their lives and relationships are better for it.
The plot goal has been achieved. The world is saved!
So what kind of story are you writing? Plot or character?
If you have any questions, let me know. I’ll be back for #NinjaChat on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. MDT.