I am, of course, talking about plot, setting, and characters. All three of which you’ve probably known about since elementary school. The thing is, with writing, it’s not so easy. It’s more than just identifying them; you have to create them from scratch.
Cue debate over which one is most important, which one you should develop first if or when you decide to outline, etc. It’s a tricky question, in large part because some people find one point easier to develop than the other two, and might forget what makes all three so important.
The truth of the matter is, they’re connected to each other in a sort of love triangle that actually matters. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Anyway, allow me to explain via an admittedly childish Paint drawing.
In my own personal opinion, plot is what must come on top. Plot isn’t just suspense and tension. It’s more simple than that. It’s conflict, whether internal or external, which means that even character-driven novels need to focus on what’s actually going on in the story.
But character and setting (or, world-building) absolutely cannot be neglected. Characters are essentially the “how” to the plot’s “what,” and setting is the “why.” Your characters and their decisions are the plot; they do not exist separately. Your world, in essence, is their history. It is the source of your characters’ beliefs and motivations, and sets up parameters for what is possible and what is not.
This is less of a lesson and more of a reminder, in all honesty. Developing your setting will allow you to discover how cruel or kind your novel’s society is — whether or not it’s based on a real Earth, an apocalyptic disaster, or an utterly made-up fantasy world; the list goes on and on. Developing your characters will allow you to determine if they have taken that cruelty or kindness to heart, to show you where they have room for character development. And that character development is, of course, the bare bones of your plot.
Layer 1 was the basics, and started with what I believe is my own personal strength: world-building. As I’ve said before, my “story ideas” are usually just “world ideas” that offer me a place to put characters and plot in. I started with an idea for a setting, and then turned to my second strength: characters. Some time later, I realized I had two very different characters situated in two very different countries, and absolutely no way to connect them. I spent a lot more time toying with the plot, mostly because it’s the aspect I struggle with most, but eventually got to a point where the basics, at least, were something I could work with.
Layer 2, the one I’m in now, means a bit more development. It began with drawing a political map, with country names and boundaries, keeping in mind the requirements I needed for the plot. At least one country needed to be on a different continent, or at least separate from the mainland. Another country needed to have a major navy presence, and so needed to have a pretty large access to the ocean. And so forth. Then I took some advice I found, advice which sparked this post, and refined one character based on what role she must play for the story. Everything else– her family, in-depth personality, history, flaws, and physical description — needed to, and did, contribute to her character role in some way. I plan on focusing both on the other major characters and ironing out how magic works and the differences in each society next.
Because plot is my weakest point, I intend to keep it in mind as I continue to build upward and outward with the other two. The plan is that the smaller main-plot, and subplot, details will emerge as I continue to color in what I have already sketched out. So far, it has made things easier, because it has helped narrow down what could have been an infinite number of choices both with character and setting.
My Questions for You
As a writer, which of the three points do you find easiest to develop? What are key questions you ask yourself about it to help you develop that aspect of your novel? And how do you build off of that to delve into the other two aspects?
As a reader, have you ever read any books where the plot, world, and/or characters didn’t seem to fit together quite right? Which book(s) was it, and where did they go wrong?
“You’re the last child to talk privately with your 120 year old grandmother on her deathbed. ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ She asks, knowing she will only have enough time to explain one secret or the other.”