Maybe It’s Not Your Plot

Susan DeFcraft, fictionLeave a Comment

Recently, I presented at a virtual summit for writers entitled “Escape the Plot Forest”—a full week of talks with nearly 30 speakers, with 3,000 people registered. Which is ample evidence of what pretty much every independent editor and book coach knows: Plot is the number one thing novelists and would-be novelists tend to struggle with, and it’s what people come to us for help with, day after day.

But eight times out of ten, as I see it, that’s not really the problem at all. The problem is that these writers don’t understand their protagonist’s character arc.

Because while a plot full of trouble, twists, suspense, and reveals will keep the reader turning the pages, in the end, it’s not the external events of the story that make a novel feel meaningful—it’s the internal journey that the protagonist has made along the way.

Recently, I was talking with one of my mentors, the book coach Jennie Nash, about this business of character arc—what I call “Centering the Heart.” It is key to what I teach in my course, Story Medicine, and central to both of our practices as book coaches.

I asked Jennie why she thought so many people came to us seeking help with their plot when, in reality, it was their character arc they needed help with. Why did she think this issue was so nonobvious?

Jennie laughed and said, “Well, that’s the whole question, isn’t it?” And went on to note something I found pretty profound: As people, we’re often unaware of what we’re going through emotionally. Emotions are messy and inconvenient, and we’re often so focused on what we have to do each day to put food on the table that whatever’s going on inside us…lies somewhere just below the surface of our awareness.

I think the same is true of character arc in a novel: It’s not as obvious as the events of the plot. If someone challenged you to sum up the character arc of a book you recently read and loved, you probably couldn’t do it.

But long after you’ve forgotten the events of the plot, you’ll remember how that book made you feel—and whatever strong emotions that story evoked, I can virtually guarantee you, were an effect of its character arc.

You can read the rest of my latest craft post for Jane Friedman here.

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