Plot, Character and Me

By Sue Cook

In May I bit the bullet and parted with $40 for a course called The First 50 Pages with “The Editor Devil” Christine Fairchild. This was offered through Sisters In Crime, an association for women who write crime fiction, and had a class of 60.

Christine knows her stuff. The feedback she gave us was priceless. However, it highlighted some of the many things I find challenging about writing: creating story and character arcs, identifying core values and beliefs, and more. These are all intangibles that make my head hurt. I’m a very visual person: and if I can ‘see’ something, I struggle to understand it. If I struggle for long enough, I get a headache.

I’d love to be able to sit down with a plotting template such as The Hero’s Journey or the W-plot in front of me and fill in everything little detail of what will happen and how this affects the hero before opening that blank document.

But I can’t.

I’m a pantser. 

I’m a doer who thinks with my fingers.

I have to start writing with a vague idea of who and what and see where it takes me. Or, as James Scott Bell puts it in Plot and Structure, I’m one of the happy folk who “love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write.” More of him later.

I’m not likely to change now I’m nearing retirement age. I wish I could because I would have fewer novels stuck at the halfway mark.

However, having to plan stuff in public on ‘The First 50’ course forum made me go back and check a few things in my books on writing. I’ve bought lots over the years, but the only ones that survived my ducklings-pooping-everywhere period are three romance books and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Not one of the romance guides addresses the character arc which agents will ask about in your 1-1. And as Christine pointed out, being unable to untangle that from the plot of your book will mark you out as an amateur.

Ding. “Move along, Cook. Next please…”

In May, the Oldham Writing Group held a Zoom meeting to discuss our current main characters and so get to know them better. Due to technological numptiness, I missed the second half of the meeting and hence my chance to introduce Kev, the bumbling biology teacher.

Now I’m glad I missed out on that because I realise I haven’t mapped out his character arc. I know what he looks like, his interests, the twists and turns of his romantic life and his major realisation.

But what is that false core belief? What does he actually want? Ouch, my head hurts again.

The section on character arc in Plot and Structure was like paracetamol for a throbbing temple. What a wonderful book this is. No nonsense, no waffle, but clear, simple examples any old idiot can understand. Like me.

So, it being the warmest day of the year and me having nowhere to go, again, I sat down with a sunhat and a cold drink and turned to page 1.


There it was, in 12pt black and white –– the author’s story, his character-arc rise to publication. 

  • Bell always wanted to be a writer. 
  • He believed this could not happen because he was repeatedly told writing it was a natural gift and could not be taught. Besides, his efforts were nothing compared to the greats.
  • Then he encountered a published author who had learned to write after a life-changing accident. Bell looked at books on writing and realised you could teach someone to be an author. So he taught himself and got published.

It’s simplistic but includes the all-important LIE – the firm belief that is not true: in his case that writing cannot be taught.

I wish it were as simple as Bell makes it appear. Christine, The Devil Editor, seemed to want a ‘why’ for everything. Why do I want to be a published novelist? I don’t know, I just do. Nope, go deeper. (That wasn’t an actual example, by the way, before Christine emails in.)

Oh, and that ‘want’ is, of course, not what your character ‘needs’.

The psychologists reading this are probably thinking, “What’s the problem with that?” But to me, you might as well try to explain in Swahili how to stop a nuclear reactor going ‘phut’. It’s baffling. Or it was until yesterday when I went to a supermarket for the first time since March 14th. Why, I wondered, was I there and not panicking? What had changed? And the character arc for Cook Towers: The Lockdown Months hit me.

  • I entered lockdown wanting to stay alive (still do, to be honest)
  • But I believed I’d die if I went to the supermarket: 
    • because I’m a worrit 
    • because shoppers would touch things I might touch, some of them might touch me, and 2% of them were seething with the killer bug
    • because on my last pre-lockdown shop, a woman coughed at me without covering her mouth (because her hands were weighed down by bulging grocery bags) 
    • because I catch every virus going 
    • because the death rate for covid-19 in my age group is 2.8% 
    • because my luck in recent years has been terrible, so when I contract the virus in Tesco, I will inevitably become one of the 2.8%. 
  • So I became a hermit and swabbed everything that came through the door.
  • What changed? Have I developed a death wish? No. I’ve done what I needed to do at the start – I got a grip!

It’s that simple. Hallelujah.

Now all I’ve got to do is write that out for Kev, the bumbling biology teacher, and his complicated relationships with Katie and Liz.

After that, it’s on to story structure, something else I’ve been avoiding for the last ten years.

That $40 has created a lot of work. – the pessimist’s guide to writing cheerfully

Twitter – @popsytops

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