Earlier this year Matthew Wengert – publisher at AndAlso Books who published Bjelke Blues last year – approached me about co-editing a collection of stories about the COVID crisis. So, along with Caroline Gardam, Louise Martin-Chew and Nathan Shepherdson, I put up my hand to help out. This collection of over 50 short stories, essays, poems and memoir pieces reflecting Australia’s early experiences with the pandemic, is the result.
Wendall’s main message was this – Structure your plot through character decisions.
As we know the very best plots spring from the intrinsic motivations and flaws of our characters. Their goals, hopes and weaknesses create meaningful plotlines that are compelling because we are invested in the characters. Alternatively, plots that are imposed on characters can feel contrived and don’t have the same emotional drive that keeps us reading.
According to Wendall, each decision has three elements.
MOTIVATION – what situation/idea/goal/event forces a decision upon this character?
DECISION – what choice do they make in response to that motivating factor?
CONSEQUENCES – what events does the characters decision set in motion?
These elements remind me of my days teaching kids with behaviour disorders in juvenile justice centres. On every wall were posters proclaiming a very similar process to get them to reflect before they took rash actions that could potentially land them in even deeper trouble. STOP. THINK. OPTIONS. CONSEQUENCES. ACTION.
A character has to act not just react. This process of shaping the plot through their decisions forces them to take active responsibility and turns a sappy passive protagonist into a vital force in your story, novel or screenplay.
In all forms it’s important to transform these internal decisions into external actions. To not just say, Bobby realised that killing the cat would get him in trouble, but to show Bobby, swinging the cat by the tail until it shrieked, but then stopping, holding the cat to his chest, wrenching its face up to look in its eyes, then setting it free.
Each decision has its consequences. Some good, some bad. As Wendall kept saying – every decision takes your character one step forward and then two steps back.
Let’s just say Bobby made that decision to set the cat free, but it was wounded and someone had already seen him with it. When it limped home, the owners called the police and Bobby was arrested. As the police approach him Bobby starts throwing punches, swearing and reacting as he’s always done, but one of the officers speaks kindly to him and Bobby thinks better of it and calms down. Goes with them peacefully.
After the inciting incident that sets up our story, the protagonist must decide whether or not to take up the challenge it presents. Once they do, they are propelled into the second act and continue to make decisions that move them one step forward and two steps back all the way through to the climax. Some decisions seem sensible, but others, motivated perhaps by their fatal flaw or a deep-seated weakness, we know from the start are only going to make things worse, much worse.
At the watchhouse, Bobby is taken aside by a corrupt officer who tells him he’ll let him go if he becomes an informer and feeds him information about the drug running bikie gang Bobby’s violent uncle heads. Bobby shakes the corrupt officer’s hand, puts the cash in his pocket and we know things are only going to get a whole lot worse from here.
So remember, MOTIVATION, DECISION, CONSEQUENCES and show us those decisions in ACTIONS that manifest the characters feelings and realisations.
As we hurtle towards the climax of our stories, propelled by decisions that really aren’t going so well, the decisions become increasingly reckless as the character is put under more and more pressure. Consequences get more and more dangerous.
Let’s say after informing a couple of times, Bobby sees Uncle Roger stash a couple of gym bags full of cash under the house before he heads out on his Harley. Bobby gets his phone and clicks on the police officer’s number. But then, just as the officer answers, Bobby shoves the phone back in his pocket, and scrambles under the house, emerging with a bag full of cash.
Then he turns up at his young girlfriend’s place and tells her to pack a bag. They’re both heading off down the street when the cat he hurt crosses their path. His girlfriend stops to pat it and they waste precious time. The bikie gang roars around the corner.
Decisions that your character makes early on in the story manifest themselves in consequences in the final act. Bobby’s decision to become an informer brings him into all sorts of dangerous circumstances he could have avoided. Even the cat plays a role in delaying his escape.
In every book you read and every film or TV show you watch, keep an eye out for how those character decisions are shaping the story.
And if in your own story your character isn’t making any decisions of their own, but is only reacting to external forces, give them some backbone and get them making decisions to give your plot a whole lot more OOMPH!
Hope that helps you whip your stories into shape.
Keep smiling and keep writing through all the madness now surrounding us.
I’ve been working with Forgotten Australians – those who suffered institutional and/or out of home care as children – for several years here in Brisbane. But earlier this year, before COVID kept us all inside, I toured around my home state of QLD with program manager, Katie McGuire, facilitating workshops in regional centres.
As with all of my work with these extraordinary survivors, I was blown away by their stories and their resilience and willingness to try everything I threw at them.
We called our workshops The Healing Power of Story and part way through our travels were interviewed by local ABC media.
It is a great privilege to be able to contribute even a little towards helping these incredible people heal the pain of their traumatic pasts. As I say in the interview, once I met them, there was no way I could ever leave them.
People like the Forgotten Australians exist in every community. Here in Australia they have been recognised and services like Lotus Place are now available to them, but in many countries this is not yet the case.
Being with them has taught me to never, ever, walk past a homeless person without a smile and a hello. To never judge a book by its cover and to always listen and wait for a story to unfold. You never know what hell a person has been through.
And yet they’ve managed to come through with wide open hearts and great kindness of spirit.