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Thwarting Desire: Digging Your Plot

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

September 2010

". . .stories that stick in our minds are the ones where the character is desperate for something or someone . . ."

All of us are driven by our needs, our wants. This must be true for the characters we create as well. The driving force of fiction is desire.

What does your character want? If you don’t know that, walk away from your computer and think about it or no one will care to read what you write.

The stories that stick in our minds are the ones where the character is desperate for something or someone and is willing to give his life, if necessary, to reach his goal. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby gets involved in crime to be wealthy enough to win the love of Daisy. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants more than anything to get back home to Kansas and will risk her life facing down the Wicked Witch of the West to do it. The reader is held in terror in Cormac McCarthy’s post Apoclyptic tale, The Road, as an unnamed father takes his son through a terrifying world, protecting him all the way to try to get him to “the good people.”

If your character doesn’t want anything badly enough, you won’t have a story. If the character’s want is something very far in the future, you won’t be able to create suspense, urgency, the ingredients needed to hold onto the reader. A desire can be not wanting something to happen as well. Think of the screenplay, Fatal Attraction, where Alex (Glenn Close) has murderous desire for Dan (Michael Douglass), a married man whom she had a one night affair with. While Alex’s desire is to get Dan at all cost, Dan’s desire is to get away from her.

Which brings me to the next point. The protagonist should have an opposite desire from the antagonist, the person who is causing the problem, the one who is going against the hero.

In Stein on Writing, (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) Sol Stein says that relating the character’s deepest desire to his eccentricity, that is, his fundamental difference from other characters. Think of Alex (Glen Close). How many women do you know who would be willing to murder to get her man? (I hope none.) This is in direct conflict with Dan who wants to have an occasional fling, but stay with his wife and daughter.

The essence of plot, Stein says, is to put the protagonist’s desire into sharp conflict with the antagonist’s desire. Ask yourself what your hero wants, then what characteristic of the antagonist would most thwart this? There has to be a two-way urgency. Hamlet is as desperate to revenge his father’s death as the uncle who murdered him is to keep his brother’s kingdom and the queen, his brother’s wife. The villain, Iago, who seeks revenge against Othello for passing him over for promotion, uses Othello’s desperate desire for Desdemona, casting doubt on her faithfulness, to bring Othello down. The desire for revenge trumps love because of Othello’s character flaw of naievete, which is the opposite of Iago’s ability for dishonesty and manipulation.

". . . plot rises from the clash of wants between the protagonist and antagonist . . .

The reader cares what happens only if he cares about the character, which is why wisdom has it that plot grows out of character.

The plot rises from the clash of wants between the protagonist and antagonist, so what each wants must be something significant. The example Stein gives is that the villain might want to steal the hero’s beloved stamp collection that he struggled throughout his lifetime to buy, and conceal his theft by selling the stamps off individually. Ho-hum. But what if the collection belonged to F.D.R. who was so upset about it that it might interfere with some matter of state? Still weak, but with a bit more oomph. Still, it’s not enough. You have to have a want that is universal: the want of love, safety, vengeance, saving a life, ambition, accomplishing a task that seems impossible.

The most common causes of clashes are for love, money, or power. The conflict must be large or it will seem trivial. Ask yourself if the clash could lead to unhappiness, injury, or death? Also, ask yourself if the conflict will feel inevitable to the reader or concocted? Will the clash take place before the reader’s eyes or just referred to?

Here’s Stein’s litmus test for the intensity of your plot:

Does the conflict you’ve invented involve the best possible outcome for your character? Is what happens a surprise to anyone? Can you make it surprising by setting up an action then showing the opposite of what your reader is likely to expect?

This is great advice for the overall plot, but each chapter, each scene has to contribute to it. Stein has advice for the parts that lead to the whole as well:

If a scene is dull, introduce a new character that has something important at stake in what is happening in the scene. If your book is about a cab driver stalking a woman who he thinks is a goddess, have a woman get into the cab who hates her for having stolen her boyfriend. Think of the worst thing that could happen to you and then the worst thing that could happen to your best friend. This is a way of personalizing the plot problem and making it more solvable. Experience a character’s fear. In Janette Walls The Glass Castle, the reader is terrified about whether or not she and her siblings will survive, even though we know they will because how else could this memoir have been written?

"Something big has to change for the characters."
Change is the antidote to boredom. Something big has to change for the characters. Surprises are what get the reader going. A new attempt by a villain to threaten the safety of the hero, the heroine throwing her engagement in the face of the man she thought she’d wanted more than life. Look at the events of your book. See what the expected outcome would be, then do the opposite.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.