Plotto: How Writers Use Characterization
Mastering Plotto Training Series 6
Note: One of the master writers of our age was William Wallace Cook. Producing often a novel per week, he was also a student of dramatic plots. This lesson from his long unavailable “Mastering Plotto” book gives you inside tips on how to improve your story output by coming up with plots more simply. An online version of his PLOTTO is available from Gary Kacmarcik for the exercises below. Enjoy.
In commercial affairs, a large organization may have intimate relations with a number of subsidiary organizations. The parent organization, in such a case, may exercise control over the subsidiaries by the devise of having some of the directors of the larger company act also as directors of some of the smaller concerns. The result technically is known as “an interlocking directorate.”
If we consider the fundamentals of a story to be theme, plot and characterization, we shall discover that each of the elements interlocks one with the other. This mutual dependence, or interlocking, is brought about in narrative fiction through the interpretation of suggestion.
Character determines the reaction of a protagonist to the stimuli of environment. A brave man will face a danger from which a cowardly man will flee. Yet here is a generalization capable of many interpretations. The manner in which a brave man will face a danger from which a cowardly man will flee presents a finer problem in characterization. Mass courage, the courage of a Light Brigade charging to death at Balaklava, drops a plummet to the bottom of military duty and leaves nothing more to be said; but the gallant American corporal who, in the World War, captured one machine gun nest after another, typifies the courage and exalts the character of a protagonist who adds resourcefulness to his courage. Bravery and cowardice may have their distinguishing features or peculiarities; and here the larger classifications shade off into innumerable nuances of conduct.
Characterization is an indispensable element in every story. Carried to a point in which it rises paramount to plot and theme, we have the so-called “character” story; with emphasis on the plot, we have the plot story; with emphasis on the theme, the thematic story.
Technically, there must be a theme, there must be a plot embodying the theme, and there must be characterization exemplifying the plot. The Plotto Masterplot will suggest the theme at the time that it suggests the Masterplot, the Masterplot will suggest the plot, and the plot will suggest the characterization. In Plotto, the technical elements of the story’s construction are all interlocked, or dovetailed, one with another.
Diderot states that “it is for the situations to decide the characters. The plan of the drama may be drawn, and well drawn, before the poet knows anything of the character he will give his personages.” A person’s character is best revealed by his acts, rather than through any psychological description by the author. What a man does, is the revelation of what really is. Uriah Heep’s “I am so humble,” is less eloquent than his shrinking, and the wringing of his hands; and all these are less to the point than his designing, detestable intermeddling.
The situations, then, will decide the characterization. The Masterplots have their veiled character suggestions, and in the Conflicts these suggestions become sufficiently clear for interpretation.
Glance through the A Clauses of the Masterplots. “A Person in Love,” and “A Married Person,” are broadly suggestive of status rather than of temperament, but “A Lawless Person,” “An Erring Person,” “A Benevolent Person,” and so on, offer vague suggestions in characterization.
The general suggestions of the B Clauses carry us a step further. “Engaging in a difficult enterprise when promised a reward for high achievement,” will suggest a latent courage aroused by the offer of a reward, or high courage girding itself for extraordinary achievement. “Falling in love at a time when certain obligations forbid love,” will suggest a character either admirable or despicable.
In the C Clauses also there are these veiled and general character suggestions: “Emerges from a trying ordeal with sorely garnered wisdom,” “Meets with an experience whereby an error is corrected,” “Discovers the folly of trying to appear otherwise than as one is in reality”—these are all filled with character suggestions.
However, it remains for the Conflicts to offer more concrete suggestions in character building. Conflict 753, “A, seeking to finance himself, gambles with money not his own—and loses it;” Conflict 544, “B labors under the mistaken belief that her husband, A, receives all the praise for her own kindly acts;” Conflict 196, “A, because of timidity, is unable to ask B’s hand in marriage;” and so on. The creative imagination is called upon to furnish character that will meet the conditions of the situation, and all the depths of human nature may be sounded.
You have selected a theme or Masterplot for a short story, and a main Conflict for the story with its lead-up and carry-on suggestions; in short, you have an original plot, and now that plot is to be presented in story form. You are asked, at this time, to resolve your plot into narrative fiction. You will continue to be original in your work. In interpreting actions into character, you will not copy any other author’s characterization but you will dig deep into your own knowledge of life and create character in logical explanation of Purpose and Obstacle. Obstacle itself will suggest characterization in the matter of the antagonist, and every angle of the situation will afford character clues for the subordinate actors in the drama.
Along this line of Conflict character suggestion, let us for a moment study Conflict 92:
B is in love with A, who has been arrested on a criminal charge by A-6* B, in order to help her lover, A, escape from A-6, the officer who has arrested him, makes love to A-6**
What would you consider to be the character of B in this situation? There are various interpretations. The highest interpretation would picture B as a woman of Puritanical principles who, rendered desperate by the plight of the man she loves, turns her back on her principles and, in a spirit of self-sacrifice, plays the role of a wanton. A-6, the antagonist, would be a man of loose character to whom the beauty of A’s sweetheart, B, carries an irresistible appeal. A, high-souled victim of circumstantial evidence, would watch the coquetry of B and perhaps misinterpret its cause.
On the other hand, a second interpretation would picture A and B as criminals, with A counseling B in her drab pretentions; and A-6 would be of wavering character, or consecrated to professional duty, as the plot might indicate.
Again, B might be high principled. Persuaded by A to flirt with A-6, B might for the first time secure light on the despicable character of A, and thus alter the whole course of her future. Here the character trend of all factors in the situation would depend upon the Clauses of the Masterplot.
Inventing character as a logical explanation of Conflict circumstances, develops the powers of characterization and makes for facility in original interpretation.
The phrasing of a narrative story is a matter of style, of your own style and an expression of your own individuality if these lessons have not been in vain. Let your style be one of the utmost simplicity, by all means—a style of Anglo-Saxon words rather than of their Latinized synonyms or near-synonyms. There will be variations of individual style exacted by the theme. Humor will decide one variation, and pathos another; satire will lend the phrasing another note, if you care to write a story in that pitch; but each and all, let it be remembered, are variations of your own style.
If the plot has been properly constructed, the technical requirements of introduction, ascending action, crisis and dénouement have all been taken care of. It remains for style to give no more place to action than action demands. A short story is the most difficult piece of work in all fiction. Nothing may be left out that will help to convey the single dominant impression to the reader’s mind, and nothing may be added that will blur or confuse that impression. Think of the reader when you are writing your story. All your ideas are clear to you, but will they be clear to him? Apart from plain lucidity, there is a strength and manliness in simplicity that rarely fails to impress the reader.
At the very beginning of your story there are pitfalls to be avoided. Interest your reader at the start, with the first sentence if possible, certainly with the first paragraph. In Donn Byrne’s book, “Changeling and Other Short Stories,” there is not one that begins with dialogue. But Byrne’s openings are descriptive in a way that grips and holds the attention of the reader. Note these: “Because of his perfect, or nearly perfect, English there were many who believed that Li Sin was merely masquerading as a Chinaman.” “Very much as though he were entering a disreputable place, Matthew Kerrigan, etc.” “To him the whole conversation, the whole setting, the whole event, were unreal as ghosts are unreal,” etc.
Galsworthy is equally subtle in his mastery of the short story as a whole and in its beginnings. “Its psychic origin, like that of most human loves and hates, were obscure.” “The affectionate if rather mocking friend who had said of Charles Grantor: “He isn’t a man, he’s an edifice,” etc.”
At the first swing of your driver get the ball into the fairway of your story. Begin with the story, and not with a lot of circumlocution leading up to the beginning. A short story has no words to waste.
Lesson 6 Exercises
1. Characterize briefly “An Erring Person.”
2. Characterize briefly “Being impelled by an unusual motive to engage in crafty enterprise.”
What was the “unusual motive?”
What was “the crafty enterprise?”
What character was needed for motive and enterprise?
3. How was character of protagonist changed in C Clause (14): “Achieves a complete and permanent character transformation?”
4. Write a short story of not more than 5,000 words around the Masterplot, Conflicts and original references already selected.