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Plot, character, chicken, egg …

October 30, 2011

Every story has people in it. It has settings, a series of events, and a name. A lot of factors have to come together for a piece of prose to be complete. While the question of the order in which we tackle them isn’t exactly like the chicken and the egg, it is often hard to tell in which order they come.

Let’s have a look at the following things:

  • Characters
    The people in a story – protagonists, antagonists and minor characters.
  • Narrative style
    Present or past tense? 1st or 3rd person point of view? Omniscient narrator or one character’s view?
  • Plot
    The major events and where they lead.
  • Genre
    Science fiction? Literary fiction? Young adult? Satire? Historical novel? Etc.
  • Settings
    Where the story is taking place.
  • Theme
    The essence of the story. It can be a message, a philosophy or examination of a certain thing.
  • Title
    The name of the story.

Planning this year's NaNoWriMo.

Defined loosely, I can’t think of any piece of fiction (perhaps except Twitter fiction that doesn’t have all of these to a certain degree. Even “Untitled” is a title, and even in non-plotdriven stories or stories that take place inside a protagonist’s head, there is a series of events going on.

Normally, for me, protagonists shows up. They wander into my head. Usually they are more or less fully formed – they have  personality, name, existence and surroundings. It takes a while to figure out exactly what to do with them. They tend to have a story with them, but very often it’s a personal history and not one that can be written down and become a novel or a short story right away. Sometimes they get a few scenes or short stories or become characters in the stories of others and nothing more, but once in a while they will turn out to be the base for my next long story.
Often the narrative style will emerge on its own for every story. The theme is something I am generally able to see after I have written the story (at least unless we count something as general as “the human condition”). I don’t write to deliver a certain message. Genre is something I don’t worry about. I tend to land between genres, and it doesn’t usually bother me. As for titles … Well, I tend to struggle with them and come up with ten horrible ones before I manage something acceptable.

Did I miss anything? What comes first for you? Do you have a certain genre in mind and then work out a story from there? Or do characters and plot go hand in hand?
19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2011 6:01 pm

    First of all, good luck with your NaNo story!

    I usually see a scene first and the story builds from there. Sometimes, I follow the character and build the story that way, but often times, I figure out if the scene I’m seeing is at the beginning or the end and build the plot backwards (or forwards) from there.


    • October 30, 2011 6:22 pm

      Good point! Sometimes I get a scene too, though I usually get the character first. It’s exciting to figure out where the scene goes, isn’t it?
      And thank you very much! 🙂


  2. October 30, 2011 6:16 pm

    I’d say character comes first for me. Once I understand the character, I understand better what they’d do in the strange situation I’ve put them in.

    Good luck with Nano. 😀 Your notebook looks so organized!


    • October 30, 2011 6:24 pm

      You and me both. 🙂
      And thank you very much! I had a lot of fun organising it, drawing maps and jotting down notes on various subjects.


  3. October 30, 2011 7:06 pm

    I never know what will come first for a story. Sometimes, even often, it is a title. The title then defines the story, and the story defines the characters and plot.

    Sometimes it is a situation, or a question: “what would happen if every radical religous group was split off into an alternative earth?”

    Sometimes it is a dream.


    • October 31, 2011 9:44 am

      How exciting to get ideas like that. 🙂
      Oh yes, dreams. I’ve “met” a handful of my protagonists in dreams and then decided to look into them the next day.
      Thanks for commenting and liking! 🙂


  4. October 30, 2011 7:32 pm

    For my full-length novels, the premise pops up first, with a core of characters, like I’ve walked in on a day in their lives. Around the time this happens, the title pops up as well. In my latest completed draft, the title popped up months before anything else did. lol So that part’s easy for me. My stumbling blocks are transitions and continuity of storyline. I know the plot and character arcs in my mind, but translating that to the reader can be tricky. At times I feel like I’m writing in circles. But I suppose that’s part of the learning process. I write in present tense, but my novels have different POVs. Other than that, I’m still discovering my narrative style. Not sure I even have one. Personally, settings are much more challenging than characters. Theme- tends to creep up behind my back, but even after I discover it, I let it alone. I don’t focus on genre, but I’d say most of my stories have a strong element of horror in them. And like you, I think my novels blend genres.

    That’s quite an organized-looking notebook you have there. And to think I was proud of my rough outline. lol

    Cheers to NaNo!


    • October 31, 2011 7:09 pm

      I like the idea of walking in on a day in the characters’ lives. Sometimes it’s a little like that for me too.
      Wow, I’m amazed that you get titles that easily. That’s a talent I really don’t have (except for a certain kind of stories that I’m hardly ever writing, actually).
      My narrative style varies with the story I’m writing. A lot. Or so I think. I suppose it’s sometimes easier for others to tell. I find that, with the flash fiction I’ve read by you, that you do have a style even if they are very different (and that’s a good thing). Haha, I usually let the theme alone too after discovering it.
      As for the notebook, I like to do that kind of thing. It’s nice and cosy.
      Cheers indeed, and thanks for the comment! 🙂
      (… How the heck did your comment end up on the spam list? I just salvaged it.)


      • October 31, 2011 10:12 pm

        Oh I have a “style”? That’s exciting. 🙂 Though I admit my style (whatever it might be) may disappear if you ever end up reading any of my full-length novels. lol

        Yeah, I’ve noticed lately my comments aren’t showing up on some blogs. This is a new thing. *grrr* I wonder how many of my comments have been inadvertently deleted around the web . .


        • October 31, 2011 10:23 pm

          Well, maybe style gets more … condensed in short fiction. It would make sense.

          That’s odd. Unless you advertise p0rn or something like that of course, but seeing as you don’t usually … 😉


  5. Maggie permalink
    October 30, 2011 9:20 pm

    Usually for me, the character comes first – then I think of a neat situation I can put them in and that makes the plot.


    • October 31, 2011 9:45 am

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂
      That way makes for very character-driven stories, doesn’t it? I always feel that I’m wrapping the story around my characters in a way.


  6. October 31, 2011 10:18 am

    For me, there is only my boy, my Julian and well, he showed up telling me he had a story he HAD to share and at first, I ‘studied’ him, seriously, I did a medical on him, because he was so peculiar, and he fooled me as I thought he was something I was familiar with. Anyway, with him, it was all very complex, he has pages and pages of backstory, and I know his entire history, from before his ancestors. He even showed up in normal human mode as Brandon, the rockstar I wrote on my Nanowrimo 2 years ago, I realised by their similarities, that it was him and he wanted to be a rockstar, so as you can see, I have a complex boy, with a seriously convoluted story. 3 years ago, I was petrified in my lack of writing skills, afraid I’d never pull off his story, he taught me to write, and now, I have this weird novel to write, where Julian is Brandon, and later on, he is Julian and 30 years have gone past but he looks the same and my head hurts 😉


    • October 31, 2011 2:02 pm

      Wow, this sounds so much like how it is for me (except I have a few more muses around to make matters even more difficult). I’m still discovering things about my boy (that I NaNoed about two years ago, incidentally). I jokingly say that I know “everything” about him, and in a way it’s true because I do know what cologne he wears, how his hair looked in the 1950s (yes, he’s one of those who’ve been around for a while, too), his favourite drink, his religious inclination, who his friends are, why he’s using the alias that he is these days, why he can’t remember 9/11 and so on. But I’m still only on the journey to discover how everything fits together and why some of the things that I know are significant to his story. He wasn’t going to tell me the whole thing to begin with (he was just going to hang out), though, but then things happened in his life and it became relevant to him to share it.
      … /end rant. Thanks for commenting and liking! 🙂


      • October 31, 2011 9:33 pm

        Sounds a lot like me. I’m trying to figure out how all the pieces of what I know about him fit as well. I sure know how you feel. Mine just wanted to tell me this one story, about a girl he loved very much, but the story is so complex that it’s taken me all this time to tie everything together. Something tells me, you will know exactly how I feel 😉


        • October 31, 2011 9:42 pm

          Oh yes, I do! 🙂 A little like mine was originally just going to tell me about his involvement with this other guy I was writing about and how lots of people (me included) had gotten it all wrong to begin with … XD


  7. October 31, 2011 10:51 pm

    Hmm . . I might by some stretch of the imagination be associated with pron, but definitely not p0rn . . lol


  8. storymultiverse permalink
    November 2, 2011 9:29 pm

    There are basically two different approaches I have: fragmented and holistic. When I have a great idea for a character, place, setting, etc. but no where to put it, I write down everything I can think of about it and set it aside in a pile of “fragments.” Periodically, I’ll go through and read all of the fragments, trying out different combinations to see if any will go together.

    In the holistic mode, I am struck by a bolt of inspiration (or an intuition particle, or whatever) and have most of the idea fully formed by the time I start outlining. I do a little filling-in to make sure the world is coherent, but mostly it’s just putting words on paper. Most often these are ideas I have based on dreams.


    • November 13, 2011 12:49 pm

      I like your explanation of these modes. I tend to leave fragments floating around in the back of my mind and wait to see if they will form a whole.
      I get a ideas from dreams, too. Sometimes it will be a character, and sometimes it will be a genre or a storyline.
      Thank you for commenting! 🙂


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