Plot, character and all that other stuff

When looking at literature in any form, there are certain key components of narrative that must be considered.  Plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme are the big five. As you are all in an introductory college course I’m running on the assumption you can define these terms (It’s really middle school stuff) so we’re going to cut the b.s. and just jump straight into the important points of these concepts.

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Plot – Kurt Vonnegut once said “There’s only one story, a stranger comes to town,” and he’s mostly right. Every story that can be told has been told.  There are only so many facets to the human condition – love, hate, grief, regret, envy, ect.. The number of conflicts in the human soul is fairly limited.  What seperates good narrative from bad is how the story is told. Look at it this way, every haunted house story is the same:

#1 – Somebody moves into a house.

#2 – Weird stuff goes down.

#3 – Oh crap, haunted house.

That is literally it.  Every genre has its plot, its inherent conflicts.  Recognizing how these work is key as conflict is the engine that drives the narrative.

Character:  The conflict of characters is what drives the plot in the best narratives.  This said look at wholey plot driven stories – aka chasing a magic rock aka 90% of the Marvel films.  The characters are merely on a quest (chasing a magic rock) and the main conflict is wholly who will get it first, protagonist or antagonist.  Character driven stories are different. It is friction of one characters desires against another characters that creates plot. Thing Game of Thrones or anything Shakespeare ever wrote.  What do Lear or Othello or Henry V or MacBeth want? It’s never as simple as “a magic rock.” The other characters aren’t there to prevent them from getting “the magic rock” they’re there because their own desires while often not in direct conflict with the protagonist cause some sort of conflict.  Think Steinbeck’s characters or Ahab in Moby Dick. Fully developed characters stay with the reader.

POV – Point of view is where every writer starts.  How do I tell this story? Whose shoulder in the reader riding on?  Do I give internal thoughts or not? Again, I’m assuming you know the three standard POVs 1-3.  But I want to break it down further.

1st person – I.  Simple. We can only see and know what our narrator knows.  Everything is presented to the narrator’s personality and reliability.

1st person plural – The “We” as narrator and not in the royal sense.  This is incredibly difficult to write. The best example I can name is Larry Hienimann’s Paco’s Story which won the National Book award.  The narrator is the collective ghosts of Paco’s platoon who were wiped out to a man.

1st person omniscient –  This one’s tricky. A first person narrator who knows what happens outside of their immediate experiences and can go into their characters head. I honestly can’t think of a solid example.

2nd person – You.  A rarity and a staple of the old choose your own adventures books.  “You see a door and a hallway. To open the door turn to page 3 to go down the hall turn to page 45.”  Big Lights, Big City is the best example of 2nd person narrator as the bulk of the novel is the main character talking to himself in the mirror recounting everything that’s happened to him.

3rd person – He, she, they. Breaks down as such

3rd person omniscient –  The narrator is basically god and can show us anything happening anywhere and go into the head of any character in the story.

3rd person limited omniscient – The narrator has one or more characters they follow. Cannot jump into any characters head because it will spoil the mystery, plot, suspense, etc.

With 3rd person you alos need to think about the question of editorial voice.  Does the narrator judge the characters? Do they not? If they do, why and to what effect?

Setting – Setting can go either way.  Think of all the movies you’ve seen in generic big city USA (secret – that’s Toronto).  All that matters is big city. Now think about Batman. Without Gotham he doesn’t work. I have a hard time thinking about the Dark Knight swinging around Omaha shouting “I am the Night!”  Likewise Spider-Man would be terrible in Wilkes-Barre. Nowhere to swing from.

Some stories are timeless.  Take Shakespeare. You can take those stories and put them anywhere and anyplace.  West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet in New York with gangs and dancing. Sons of Anarchy (the first season at least) is Hamlet with bikers.  There are a lot of examples. The Seven Samurai is The Magnificent Seven is A Bug’s Life is Ironclad. The stories are not tied to one local or time frame.  They are near universal.

The flip side is stories tied intimately to a historic event or locale.  Of Mice and Men doesn’t work without the Dust Bowl. Saving Private Ryan ain’t the same without D-Day. Lord of the Rings need Middle Earth.  The big question is how much does the setting play into the narrative, how necessary is it. Think the Yellow Wallpaper. No house, no Wallpaper, no story?  Then again does timeframe matter or could that story be updated for today?

Theme – That leads us to theme aka what everybody think lit class is all about.  Here’s a dirty secret. Most writers figure out the theme halfway through writing, not at the start.  They’re more concerned with if the story works than they are with what means, at first. It’s in the latter drafts “The moral of the story” takes shape.

That said, theme is subjective.  Most people think every story has one universal truth that people in my line of work will present to you.  Nope. What you bring to the table is different from what I do in reading a story. I read from my point of view, a lapsed Catholic, chain smoking, foulmouthed, straight, white guy of Polish, Slovak and Sicilian descent.  What I am going to focus on in a work is not what you are going to. Why? You’re not me and I’m not you. All that matters is you can back up your interpretation of meaning by citing directly from the story itself. It’s hard to be wrong about what a story means unless it’s called Death, is one line long “He died” and you say it’s about love. As long as you can support your points you can make literature mean just about anything

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