Monday, January 31, 2011

The Reluctant Doorway

I'm currently in revisions with my WIP. Where I am is at the start of revisions-- dealing with the big stuff like character arc, plot, etc. Later, I'll move into the technical aspects like writing quality and word choice.

One of the things I do when I'm in the plot revision stage* is look at plot and consult my books on the subject. My favorite, which I've mentioned many times, is James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, which I think is one of the most simple, easy books on plot around.

*I talk like I'm a pro and have done this a million times, but it's important to say here that in fact I only recently learned to revise this way from the top down, and let the technical aspects go until later.

One thing that stuck out at me more this time than any other (which is telling) is Bell's discussion on character arc, which dovetails into the plot. He says it should be like this:
  • Beginning
  • First doorway (almost always reluctantly)
  • Incidents
  • A deepening disturbance
  • A moment of change (epiphany)
  • Aftermath/resolution
But hang on. Look at that first doorway the main character steps though--almost always reluctantly. I really think I'd been missing that subtle point until very recently when I went back to look this stuff over. A main character should begin moving through the plot almost always reluctantly. Holy Krakow! Really?

I put this to the test. I thought of popular plots and yes, they check out--across all genres:
  • Star Wars: the first doorway occurs when Luke's uncle and aunt are vaporized by Imperial troopers. He then decides to join Obi-wan to go fight the Empire. But he is reluctant to go at first, and if his only known family hadn't been just killed, he might not have done it. (Let's not argue that the Force would have drawn him in anyway.)
  • GhostTown (the movie with Ricky Gervais): Ricky's character, Bertram Pincus, can see ghosts after he dies and comes back on the operating table. He really does not want to see ghosts, or talk to anyone in particular, and so this new skill is really annoying to him.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Frodo really does not want to go take on the pressure of the ring, and he reluctantly accepts the heavy burden of traveling to Mordor.
  • The Godfather: Michael Corleone does not want to join his family's "business" but steps through the first doorway nonetheless-- shooting the crooked cop and his father's enemy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Blomkvist, the main character, doesn't really want to go take the job of writing the old guy's story, does he? But he does. His decision to do it forces him through the first doorway into the story.
  • The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews (contemporary women's fiction): The main character is fired from her job and her father tells her to go fix up an old house he's inherited. She really doesn't want to because the house is in a small backwater town, but she goes because she'll be financially cut off if she doesn't.
Watch a movie or think of the book you're reading. Can you find the reluctance of the main character as they step through that crucial first doorway? Can you think of any plots that don't have this element that worked? I know some of you never think about plot and story just works for you. And in a way, I hate to be so stringent about this little detail. But I could pick it out of pretty much every plot I remembered, as demonstrated above, so it must have something to it, right?

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