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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Organic Plot and Structure for Character Driven Stories

Please welcome guest blogger Jodi Henley

There are many different ways to look at story. In a plot-driven story, event B is always caused by event A. In other words, if I want my hero John back in school after a couple of decades in the workforce, I need a reason.

In a linear plot, you'd see John get a pink slip and walk past a Workers Retraining poster. In an organic, character-driven story, you'd see John in a crappy job, a stack of bills on the counter, his kids in a rundown second rate school and his fear that maybe that's all there is, maybe he can’t get his kids out of poverty. By the time John walks into the admission office, you know why he's there, but there's no one specific goal or motivation because his goals are as complex as his motivations.

Linear-John is easy to flesh out because his character only needs to be developed to the point of supporting the plot. I can easily give John gorgeous blond hair, dazzling blue eyes and an Armani suit, because he’s plot-support.

Organic-John is defined by his circumstances and character. He's got kids, he's got a crappy job--they live in a ghetto. That means he might wear a suit, but if he cares about his kids, it's the Sears clearance special and his gorgeous blond hair is shaggy and unkempt, or so military tight it can go longer between cuts. Maybe he cuts it himself and messed up one side. Maybe he's too proud to ask for help, so he's always hungry. In a character-driven story John is a plot-driver.

The underlying structure is logical, but that logic is the result of many plot threads coming together in a way true to your character’s internal logic. An organic story has GMC, but it can’t be seen from the inside during the process of writing this particular kind of draft. It can only be seen afterwards during revision/edits or layering. In other words, linear plot doesn’t work for an organically written, character-driven story because logical progression doesn’t always work on a conscious level.

Plot is important to stories that have to go somewhere--tech-thrillers, mysteries, psychological suspense--books where every thread has to go over and under in exactly the right place. Organic plot, on the other hand, is a cross between writing by the seat of your pants and filling in an extensive twenty page outline. It stays in flux, which means the writer needs to stay flexible.


If you have a story where the hero ends up in circumstances that trigger one or more of his hot buttons, you’ll automatically get plot points where the hero acts a certain way, or consciously fights the desire to act a certain way. But until you put him in exactly those circumstances, it's hard to tell what he'll do. It’s obvious, but not until afterwards.

Not pantsing, because a well constructed hero can only act true to his nature. And not character arc, because character arc is how your character reacts and changes over the course of the story. Organic plot points are unique and tailored specifically to one character. Like flux that flows outward and at the point of contact with another character changes to create a story event like “a jump” from A to D, instead of the more commonplace A-B-C-D. “A” is a given, and so is “D”, but “B” and “C” are more like a leap of faith that can’t “not” work if the characters are acting true to themselves and their creation.

The way this boomerangs is when well meaning writers force a plot on characters that wouldn't logically do the needed action. Think of a skein of yarn where the “creation” of character is the beginning of the strand--now pull the skein out to where it’s sort of like a big moebius strip, lay it down and cut it on each side. You have a lot of strips that are of equal length.

Organic structure is like that.

A lot of ends that intersect at point “A”, travel in a mostly straight line “toward” point “D”, and then end when they “become” point “D”. But at the same time remain a bunch of ends with the potential to become their own skein, and something totally different when another color or fiber/character gets added.

Jodi Henley is a long-time member of the popular on-line writer’s forum “Romance Divas” where her craft of writing articles have been archived as downloads in The Place for Answers, Romance Diva’s on-line library. Highly sought after for her plain-English approach to problem solving, Jodi spends her time dissecting the craft of writing. Her obsessive Myer-Briggs INTJ personality drives her to explain her findings, and she considers herself lucky to have a receptive audience. A long-time blogger, her blog, “ Will Work for Noodles”, is a popular writer’s reference for people in fields from play-writing to Christian magazines and newspaper journalism.

Praise for Jodi Henley:

“I'm so glad this story is FINALLY going somewhere! I've been working on this thing for like 4-5 years and then Jodi came along with her organic structure and BOOM! I always felt like this story could be something special but I just never felt I was ready to work on it. Jodi is a wealth of information”--Lauren Murphy, author of Cara’s Christmas Fantasy

Running in the Dark: Organic Structure for Character-driven Stories runs from May 31, 2010 through June 6, 2010.


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

lol--no clue what I was thinking. Probably having an attack of teacher-itis. I'm as exciting as a pancake, and I hope anyone who reads my post will bear with me long enough not to fall asleep. :)

Hailey Edwards said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts on organic writing. It makes my thought process seem so much more…normal.

I don’t start projects with a clear plot in mind. I know the characters and their circumstances. I know how the book begins and how the book will end. Everything that comes between is as much a surprise to me as I hope it will be to the reader, and I like it like that.

Victoria Janssen said...

Interesting post! I love hearing how different writers work, and seeing how my process is both similar and different.

Jeannie Lin said...

Mmmm..Pancakes are very exciting!

I'm trying to wrap my head around the process. I was trying to tell a mentee that character creates conflict when she was saying how her stories never seemed to have enough conflict. But then when I tried to explain, I think I wasn't clear.

Your post really helped me turn things around -- if your character is complex enough and your character is in conflict, then you're not likely to "run out of conflict" for your story. Whereas if you're having them follow a plot you made up, very easy to hit the end of the line. :)

Gwen Hayes said...

I do not know how you analyze that stuff so well. It's like another language to me.

I can't look at my ms and find GMC etc. I just write what they tell me their story is and hope there is a plot in it.

Voirey Linger said...

Jodi, You always manage to make complex issues sound so basic and understandable. Great information there.

Unknown said...

*sniffle* Divas Rock!!!

Kimberly Farris said...

I really like the idea of a character having the potential to be the plot support or the plot driver.

Great post.

Mima said...

i found this really helpful (until the yarn). but i've never heard this term before so it was very challenging to me. i enjoyed sitting back and thinking through what you said, applying it to my current writing. i guess the key is to write deep, and let the backstory be. then you're starting from a character in crisis, and it all kind of unwinds. or knits, as the case may be.

Unknown said...

thanks, Kimberly :)

lol, mima. You are "not" a yarn person. But it kind of fit with what I was thinking about at the time.

very true about backstory. Backstory is uber important, but very little of it shows. Sort of like that iceberg that sank Titanic.