Tuesday, October 11, 2011

11 Character or Plot or Setting? Building Your Story's Universe

"You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."
~ Neil Gaiman

Character or plot? That's the writer's equivalent of the philosopher's chicken/egg dilemma, and it evokes the same questions about the beginning of life and the nature of the universe. Only instead of our real universe, we are pondering the universe of a story.

For me, building a novel's universe--the physical and magical laws that make it work, the landscapes within it, and the people who walk those landscapes--usually begins with an image from a dream, a moment, or a photograph. I may remember only that one visual. Nothing else. We all do that. Every person in America, in the world, has a story idea, or a script idea, or a sit com idea. Of course, some are better than others:
  • Stephanie Meyer's dreamed of sparkly vampires.
  • Mary Shelly dreamed of a "pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," the thing that became Frankenstein.
  • Robert Louis Stephenson dreamed up the situation for his "schilling-shocker," Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by seeing Hyde take the powder and undergo the transformation in front of witnesses.
  • Sue Monk Kidd, began her SECRET LIFE OF BEES based on a single image of "bees that lived inside a bedroom wall and flew out at night."
  • Jacquelyn Mitchard, Stephen King, Anne Rice, and many other writers have all described images or dreams that sparked either a first or subsequent novel.
It's what happens after that first idea that separates the writer from the hack.

"The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build: making it interesting, making it new."
~ Neil Gaiman

The image, dream, or idea is only the beginning. Even full dream sequences make no real sense. We have to craft stories around them, populate them with living, breathing, fascinating, real characters who have unique problems that, at the same time they are fresh and different, lead with seeming, unputdownable inevitability, one misstep at a time, to an astonishing conclusion.

As Gaiman further puts it, "dream logic isn't story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you'll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream -'Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn't look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen...' - and watch their eyes glaze over." (Sort of, you know, the same look your family gets when they ask you what your story is about and you tell them.)

The magic of the writing process isn't in the first idea. It's in the sweat-making, hair-pulling, mind-bending stage where you take that single image or idea and twist it, shape it, add to it until you have a complete concept and a universe in which that concept breathes.

So what's the difference between a concept and an idea?

According to many different experts, the concept gives you the whole story recipe. Depending on who you listen to, it contains a mix of the following:

  • The fascinating character
  • The interesting setting
  • The inherent conflict
  • The inciting incident
  • The high stakes
  • The twist
  • The coolness factor
  • The hook the reader can relate to or think about
  • The great title that draws the reader in
No matter the expert, no matter the genre they are discussing, when someone tries to define the recipe for a successful story premise, the top three ingredients on the list include character, plot, and setting. The order may change, the depth of each--the amount of each ingredient--will vary. That's the alchemy of writing.

No one can tell us exactly how to build our story universe. No one will say, start with character, or start with plot, or start with setting. You need them all to create a magical book. But the key is that they all have to work together.

The plot sets the main character in motion, but she solves the plot problem in a way that only she can solve it. Her external goal hinders or becomes the inciting incident, and her internal need hinders her on the road and ties back to her greatest weakness. She reacts the way that she does, and acts the way that she does. She acts. She becomes the story. The setting creates obstacles for her, challenges. At the same time, it becomes a mirror to show us her thoughts, and our thoughts. To shape the way we see her and the laws and mores of the world she inhabits.

Whether the chicken came first, or the egg came first, our universe began with a bang. The universe of a story begins with the inciting incident, which includes a character and a place.


  1. Tolkein once said that he created the Ents because he was disappointed as a child when the "moving trees" in Shakespeare turned out to be no more than an army moving through the woods, causing them to move. He'd wanted to see moving trees, so he created his own.

    I think that's the difference in an idea and execution. You don't stop with the idea - you have to twist it and turn it and shape it into something new.

    For me, the idea came with a story about army ants, and a hiker waking up to see this odd shimmer in the middle of the night that made the walls look like they were moving. It was too dark to see anything clearly, but it was enough to scare everyone in the group when they were woken up. This dark, silent army that could move through and get that close without notice just stuck in my head; the rest of the story spiraled out from that center point.

    I'm considering using NaNo this year to finish a couple of open stories, rather than starting a new one.

  2. We are SO on the same wavelength today! :-)

    My stories usually start with a concept that relates to a plot. I'm more of a plot-driven writer than character, which is why I have to work extra hard on the characters. Sometimes my stories will come to me as a title that encapsulates the concept/plot. Then, if I can't get it out of my head, I know I have to write it. And sometimes I'll have the idea, but can't really get it going well until I've solidified it with just the right title.

    A couple of times the characters have come to me first, though. So, it's all about something that enters my mind, a what if, that excites me, that calls to me, that I know "I" can write.

  3. I love Neil Gaimon! He has great stuff to say, and I like his writing style--especially in NEVERWHERE. Hmm, the chicken or the egg. I think it varies with me--sometimes a character pops into my head, and sometimes it's a concept or unique idea.

    I love your description of the MC--"She acts. She becomes the story." Exciting!!

  4. My current manuscript stemmed from a desire I had, something that I really wished that I could do. And I dreamed up a girl who could do just that and a supporting cast in my favorite city, London, to do just that.
    Great post!

  5. Excellent post. I, too, have written novels based on a dream. I woke up and the first scene was there, ready for the pickin'. But you're right when you said: The magic of the writing process isn't in the first idea. It's in the sweat-making, hair-pulling, mind-bending stage where you take that single image or idea and twist it, shape it, add to it until you have a complete concept and a universe in which that concept breathes.

    Keep up the great work on this blog!

  6. Josin, An army of ants? Very cool!

    Susan, Having just seen the list of your "ideas"? All I can say is HOLY COW I hope our minds are on the same wavelength someday. I am in awe of your creativity.

    Carol, Me too! He's one of my top five would-leave-me-speechless-with-awe-if-I-ever-met-him writers :D

    Anita, Sounds like something you are having a ton of fun writing. Good luck with it!

    Buffy, Thank you! The whole first scene? That's great. Wish THAT would happen to me some day.

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone! :D



  7. Great post, Martina! All so true!

    I think I start with an idea for the story, then I think about the type of person I want the story to happen to, then finally I consider the setting. Takes awhile for everything to congeal, though. All easier said than done!

    Not sure about NaNo. Depends on how quickly I get the revision done. Plus, November's a tough month for committing to extra writing. What about you?

  8. Hi Ara,

    I am doing NaNo. I have my shiny new idea, and a 30K outline, and a most of my character sheets. I'm just finishing up the character sheets and getting ready to transfer them to bios and then doing my setting sheets and GMCs for major scenes. Itching to write. It is actually fantastic that NaNo doesn't start for another two weeks because it is forcing me to do all this prep.

    I hope you get to do it. How is the revision going?



  9. So, I'm wondering what happened to the comment I posted when this article came into my email last night?

    Oh, it doesn't matter. What matters is the paragraph that starts, "The plot sets the main character in motion, but she solves the plot problem in a way that only she can solve it." I've printed that paragraph out and am studying it point by point to help me take all the little vignettes I have and make an actual novel out of them. 2 1/2 years on and it's not finished yet. Very frustrating. OTOH, I'm learning so much about what makes a good story that I know my novel will be solid when it's finally finished.

  10. I start with either a plot idea or a story title that piques my interest. Then I let it stew in my head for awhile and see if I can flesh it out.

    To take it from there, I've begun using scene cards to create a stack of scenes I can build a story from. With the Nano novel for this year, since it's a sequel to my WIP, I used scene cards and created a rough outline to guide me because there's a lot of sci-fi time stuff happening. (Usually I just write like the wind and don't look back - no guidance for Nano.)

    : )

  11. Hey!

    Great post, I've been thinking quite a bit about this chicken/egg question lately. It started when I read the helpful tip somewhere of "making your characters real" and that brought me up short, because my characters are always real for me and I wasn't even aware that it is possible to start a story with a cool plot idea instead of a character who is so alive that he or she is jumping around in your head, demanding you tell his/her story. That's how it works for me. Completely character-driven.

    The drawback? My plots aren't as tight, I need AGES to think them up and I'm quite limited because if I try to make them do something that they wouldn't do, my characters go off in a sulk, sitting smash in the middle of my brain with crossed arms, refusing to meet my eyes and not budging until I remove that plot point. Very exhausting. :)

    I wonder... could anyone who is plot-driven tell me how the process works for them? Do you construct the characters around the needs of the story?


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