Characters in stories need a plan. Even passive character types need to be actively passive. Initial plans will most likely change.
As you can see, the plan itself is made up of 7 main segments. It also follows the Storytelling Rule Of Threes, because the plan will need to be changed 3 times. If you find your stories really sag in the middle it’s worth trying this guided breakdown on for size.
HEROES AS WELL AS THEIR OPPONENTS NEED PLANS
You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it –what the hell does that mean, practically?
It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.
In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.
Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.
RULES OF THUMB
Do your worst to your character
Make the trials escalate.
Initial plans fail in the vast majority of cases. Initial plans might be a single scene or, in a film, a single montage of failed attempts. This is often the writer’s way of lampshading, “Well wouldn’t a good/regular person just do this rather than jump headfirst into that kind of danger?”
- Walter White’s plan to get ahead financially by washing cars to supplement his teacher income fail when his medical bills suddenly skyrocket. (Breaking Bad)
Rule for life: If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan. Never the goal.
In stories? What happens is, the main character tends to double down on plans they were feeling lacklustre about at the beginning.
The pattern in a film length story will go something like this:
- Main character makes a plan
- Opponent ruins the plan with their own plan
- Main character seems defeated
- Oh hang on: a modified plan, new motive, new momentum
- Second revelation. Makes some sort of decision
- Ideally the audience realises something
- Main character has a third revelation and makes another decision
THE ‘PLAN MCGUFFIN’ WORKAROUND FOR PASSIVE PERSONALITY TYPES
Otherwise known as The Reluctant Hero. Characters who have no plan overlap with characters who don’t seem to want anything either. I talk about these passive types a little in my post on Desire.
Although a rule of story is that the hero must be proactive (especially in children’s books perhaps), depressive types deserve stories too, right? So how is it done?
In the indie comedy film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), we first meet our main character at a job interview.
This disaffected magazine intern doesn’t get the job at the cafe, as she is terrible at interviews. This is a masterful way of introducing a character because it tells us a lot about Darius in a short time. We learn how much she does not like being an intern, that she has interpersonal issues and is in a mood slump. Although she initially planned to get a job, she and the audience quickly learn that this plan is not going to work. She ends up with another plan.
For the writers of Safety Not Guaranteed, figuring out a ‘plan’ for this ‘character in a slump’ is a tough one, because the very nature of being in a slump and generally pessimistic about everything is that you are not making plans. This plan Darius had — to get a part-time job in a cafe — was a bit of a ‘plan McGuffin’ — we soon forget she ever wanted to leave the internship at the magazine. She is the opposite of a go-getter. She is passing up an opportunity to possibly advance in her career to work in a minimum wage job. But this initial scene exposes several things:
- We see that she doesn’t say/do things just because they are expected of her. She is her own person and also self-destructively honest.
- The interviewer says “I know your type”, encouraging the audience to categorise this young woman. If we get it wrong our expectations for her will be subverted. It’s also a pretty shitty thing for the guy to say, so anyone who hates job interview questions is likely to sympathise with Darius.
- The failed interview explains how she ends up on a strange trip with her womanising, unlikeable boss: She doesn’t just walk away from the adventure which is forced upon her because she has no other choice. Even her father is on her back about not living a worthy life.
Whenever a story stars a reluctant, passive, sarcastic, layabout, depressive (etc.) protagonist, during the course of the story the hero will almost always double down and realise that this thing, this one thing happening in this particular story — perhaps for the first time in their life — is the thing they are meant to do. In effect, there is a bit of a self-revelation near the beginning. This doubling-down forms part of their character arc.
PASSIVE PERSONALITIES NEED TO BE ACTIVELY PASSIVE
‘Actively passive’ sounds impossible, but refers to stories in which a passive character is actively resisting calls to adventure over and over. They actually have to do something to get out of adventure’s way.
CHARACTERS RARELY CONFRONT THINGS HEAD-ON
Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head-on.
— Robert Towne
However, there are several things you really DON’T want your audience thinking:
- This wouldn’t be a problem if only they just communicated!
- Why don’t they just call the police? (See a one line review of Home Alone on Reddit. The writers make the 8-year-old hero steal a toothbrush as a reason for not calling the police.)
I feel Robert Towne refers instead to general reluctance of ordinary heroes (not superheroes, who jump at any chance to save the world) to undertake a dangerous mission. Everyday heroes are generally drawn into danger against their will, but at about the halfway point in the story, this character doubles down. Suddenly this mission is important to them. They won’t stop for anything. This doubling down is necessary because they’re going to go through a battle. An audience isn’t interested in watching a half-hearted hero, unless we’re talking about a comedy in which the hero (or often, the heroine in detective comedies) bumbles through a story solving a mystery or saving the day by sheer accident.
COMEDY GENRE PLANS
In the comedy genres, the plans characters come up with are often the most ridiculous thing you can think of.
- A male actor who can’t find work because he’s a bastard dresses as a woman. (Tootsie)
- A superficial high school student plays matchmaker to two hard-grading teachers so that she can renegotiate her own terrible grades. (Clueless)
- Two men advise their virgin friend on superficial ways to become a ‘real man’ but end up getting him into troubling predicaments (The 40 Year Old Virgin)
- A boy comes up with ridiculous ways of retrieving something stuck up a tree ( Stuck by Oliver Jeffers)