This is the fourth of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Who Are You? – Character and Relationship

We’re over halfway through the process of constructing a scene and now we get to the characters. About time. When going through this exercise as an actor, you really only have to worry about your own character. When you’re a writer, you get to worry about all of them.

I could (and probably will) spend a lot of time on constructing a character and how best to do that, but for our purposes here, let’s assume you’ve done that work. You know your character, her flaws, her aspirations, her habits, her quirks, and what she does and does not know about herself. Now you have to take that character – or those characters – and place them in the scene you’ve created using the first three of the Ws.

Sticking with the birthday party example, let’s say the hero is at a birthday party for her son at her ex-husband’s house. The apparent event is the birthday party, the actual event is she intends to tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country and taking the son with her, the environment is her ex-husband’s house, not a friendly environment for her.

Now what? You put the characters in that situation. Let’s say the hero is not good at conflict at all, but has resolved that this discussion has to happen this day, at this time, before she loses her nerve.

Can you feel the tension building? The situation is set to explode.

The Setting Changes Characters’ Relationships

This seems simple enough, but too often I see characters whose relationship seems equal on both sides all the time, and that just never, ever happens in real life. There’s always a power dynamic, and that balance shifts over time, or even over an afternoon, and especially when they have a change in venue.

Here’s a concrete example: you have characters who work at a restaurant, where one is the manager and one is a waiter. There’s a power dynamic there, boss/subordinate. No matter how friendly they are with one another, Jeff is the boss and Mike is the employee.

Now switch the location. Move Jeff and Mike to, say, a seedy pool hall. Mike comes here every Friday night after his shift, he knows the people, he’s one of them. Jeff is a newcomer, sticks out like a sore thumb, and – God forbid – is still wearing his restaurant manager’s tie. Who’s the boss in this situation?

Same characters, but their relationship, and thus their interaction, changes with a simple trip a couple of blocks away.

The Scene Can Change The Relationship

As a matter of fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every scene should alter the relationship between its main characters. That’s not to say it has to be a positive change, but if there’s no tension to resolve there’s no movement in the plot and there’s no growth in the characters.

Back to the birthday example. The hero is at her son’s birthday party at her ex-husband’s house, where she’s going to tell him that she’s moving away. As the hero works up her courage to have the conversation, her ex-husband surprises her by confessing that he’s not over her and asks if, maybe, they could give it one more try. With a few words the ex-husband has completely changed the tenor of the scene, and subverted the hero’s intentions.

Does the hero stick to her guns and tell him she’s leaving? Does she back down? How is she going to deal with this surprise?

You tell me, you’re the writer.

This is the third of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Where Are You? – The Environment

The environment for the scene is the set dressing. This includes the stuff your characters can touch, like tables, chairs, rocket ships, guns, salad forks, powdered wigs, piles of severed limbs, etc. etc. etc.

The environment also includes the stuff your character can’t touch, like the wind, or darkness, or humidity. Or the seething emotion of a crowd about to turn into a mob. Or the gentle, welcoming smile of a grandmother.

In our birthday party example, your character probably is going to see a cake, some decorations, maybe some presents, and other people gathered around. But a birthday party in a bowling alley is going to have a very different environment than one on a billionaire’s yacht. Think about the fixtures and furniture you’d see in each place, aside from the cake and presents. Think about the people in attendance. It’s the same event (ostensibly) but the environments are completely different.

Story Drives The Environment

If your story is a hard-boiled noir, the hero probably won’t be seeing any androids or Jetsons-style moving sidewalks. By the same token, if your story is a high fantasy, your hero probably won’t be watching TV or driving a car.

Your story will have tropes, it’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that tropes are necessarily bad. Used properly, they can give your reader something to latch onto, a familiar entry point. A lonely lakehouse, for example, would be right at home in a romance. It could also be the setting for a horror tale. The rest of the environment fills in the story. A romance would have sweet carvings of initials on the boathouse; a horror story would have a charnal-smelling basement where muffled screams echo at night.

The story you want to tell will determine your environment.

Environment Drives The Story

And yet… as you move along in your story, the environment has a lot to say about the direction your characters might take.

In our birthday party example, aside from the cake, candles, presents, and attendees, the event takes place at a Roaring-20s Gatsby mansion. So there are idle rich, and servants, and opulent appointments, and maybe a live jazz band. And maybe your hero hates her party and hates everyone there, but somehow finds a kindred spirit in the hip, dropout drum player from the band.

Well, now there’s a story. Rich socialite, grubby jazz musician, 1925, too much champagne, negligently unguarded revolvers… the environment has just moved the plot along.

Put The First Three Together

When you determine the apparent event for your characters, the actual event, and the environment, you’re well on your way to constructing a good, meaty scene.

Only three more Ws to go.

This is the second of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Do You Want? – Actual Event

The Actual Event is the meat of the scene. What the scene’s about. If the Apparent Event is what you see through a keyhole, the Actual Event is a plot point. A story element.

Okay… so what are those things? For the Apparent Event, we used the example of a birthday party. Everyone knows what a birthday party looks like: candles, cake, singing, presents, etc. etc. And for 99% of birthday parties, the Actual Event is also a birthday party.

But not your story. No, the Actual Event at your characters’ birthday party is something completely different. Maybe it’s when the detective realizes the murderer is his own wife. Or when the villain confesses everything, knowing that no one will believe his confessor. Or when the star-crossed lovers finally come together, at last.

The Actual Event Is The Story

Every scene must involve change. Either the plot moves along (the story changes), or the character grows (the character changes). Or both. A scene that does neither serves no purpose.

The Actual Event does not have to be positive. Most of your story should be setbacks for the characters; if every development is positive, you’ll have to twists to your tale.

If your main character has a birthday party, the fallout should be dramatic. He thinks he’s going to get cake and a few well-intentioned but ultimately useless gifts. Instead, he gets the news that his mother isn’t his real mother, she’s his grandmother, and the woman he thought was his older sister is really his mother, and has been all along.

That would be devastating news to anyone. Maybe positive in the (very) long term, but at that moment – at that party – the news is a definite blow to the character, and a setback. How’s he going to deal with this? What about his plans to get married? Is she really his cousin? How can he know for sure? And on, and on, and on.

The Scene Can Have More Than One Actual Event

If your scene has more than one character, there can be more than one actual event. This is tricky to pull off, and delicate balancing act, but it can be done. When it’s done right, it’s usually a smorgasbord of dramatic irony.

I would avoid doing this with any but main characters. To be honest, secondary and tertiary characters are there to serve the plot and the needs of the main characters. I wouldn’t bother giving them an actual event. Sometimes a bartender is just there to serve drinks. But if your hero and your villain find themselves at the same birthday party… someone’s gonna win and someone’s gonna lose. And it may not be who you expect.

How quickly should you move your story along? That depends, what kind of story are you telling?

I think the biggest structural mistakes I see in writers’ work is the wrong pace for the material. You need to pick your pace as carefully as you pick your scenes and your characters.

A Big Story Needs A Fast Pace

Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to write the next ‘War and Peace.’ That’s a huge story, and, full disclosure, takes its time like a stoned sloth staring at wallpaper. But it’s not the 19th Century and you’re not Leo Tolstoy, your writing needs to move faster than his did.

A big story is going to have a lot of characters, and a lot of plot points, and a lot of incidental characterization and detail. You absolutely cannot take your time with that kind of story. You have to hammer it out, rapid-fire. Get it done.

Imagine you’re explaining your story in detail to an interested party. Imagine also that you can see their eyes start to droop. You’re losing them. Every part of your story that you’d gloss over for the purpose of keeping them interested you can probably lose from your first draft. If it’s not vital to the ‘and then…’ part of storytelling, dump it.

A Smaller Story Can Go Slower

Notice I didn’t say ‘less dramatic’ or ‘less important.’ Instead of ‘War and Peace’ you’re going to write the story of a man’s slow failing and transformation as his marriage dissolves after the death of his only child.

That’s some serious, serious storytelling. Heart-wrenching drama that will probably make your reader cry. But it’s not a ‘big’ story. You can and should take your time with this kind of story, because the meat is in the characters’ internal voices, and in their sad, inevitable interactions with one another. There’s no war or peace with this kid of story, no tales of sacrifice and heroism, just the very real tale of one man’s misery. Take your time.

Know What Kind Of Story You’re Telling

I’ve seen people with big, big, stories spend far too much time on their characters’ internal lives, while outside the world is ending. Maybe you can pull that kind of juxtaposition off, but you probably can’t. Big stories mean big choices, and big choices mean broad strokes at the keyboard.

Alternatively, I’ve seen authors try to tell small stories with smash-cut urgency, which no one can sustain. It’s exhausting to read, and those stories tend to reach several conclusions as the author pads the word count to reach novel length.

Be honest with yourself as you plan your story. Is it big or is it small? Then pace accordingly.

I learned this technique as an actor, and it’s invaluable for bringing authenticity to your performance. So why not use it in your writing?

Characters Don’t Exist In A Void

Just as your life is a continuum from birth to death, so are your characters’ lives. And every scene you put your characters in has context in those lives. In order to bring veracity to your writing, you need to think about what your characters were doing JUST BEFORE the scene started.

Their emotional states prior to the scene will inform their actions within the scene. For instance, if a character had just been in a fist fight before a scene in an emergency room, the fallout from that fight will inform their attitudes – even their dialogue – in the emergency room scene.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The Moment Before May Not Be Anything You Write

That is to say, it may not be anything that appears in your novel. Unless a scene is a direct follow-on from a prior scene, your readers will most likely never see the moment before. But you will know it. And your characters will live it and react to it.

That said, sometimes it’s helpful to write out the moment before, just as in acting you and your scene partner may improv the moment before. Don’t think of it as wasted time, or wasted words, think of it as making concrete something that was abstract in your head. That’s always a worthwhile effort.

The Scene You Just Wrote Is A Moment Before Another Event

You only have so many scenes to finish your story, so pick and choose them wisely. The scene you just wrote, with its moments before for the characters, is itself a moment before the next thing to happen in your characters’ lives.

The subsequent scene may not be one you write, but it is one that will then be the moment before another scene, etc. etc. etc. Think of events in your characters’ lives as pearls on a string. Each is precious, even if you only focus on a few rare, exceptional ones. They all matter.

I don’t see me getting any less stir crazy in the next two weeks, so today’s tip is about plotting: how your characters and your plot connect.

Character Drives Plot

This is the first principle. You have events set up, things are gonna happen. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen to your characters. How your characters react to the setup drives the next event in the plot.

Think about it in real life. No two people are going to react to the same stimulus in the same way. Someone can be in a fender-bender and be mildly annoyed, while another person might become a gibbering mess. This can be true of passengers in the same car. What happens to each person next depends largely on how they react. Character drives plot.

Plot Drives Character

Excuse me? Didn’t you just say…?

I did, and that first part is true. This second part of plotting is also true. The events of the plot spur character development. In the fender-bender example above, the person who is mildly annoyed probably wouldn’t think much about the accident other than to register it as an inconvenience. The person who is devastated by the accident, on the other hand, might make changes – good or bad – to their life as a result. They’d be substantially different after the accident than they were before. Plot drives character.

Character Drives Plot Drives Character Drives Plot…

This knot, this dance, is what a good writer masters. There is a feedback loop between plot and character and it’s in this tension that you’ll find the best story.

You’re a writer, and you love your characters. Right? All of them. Equally. They’re like your children. So you have to love them. Don’t you?

Of course not. They’re not your real children, they’re your mind-babies, and you’re allowed to hate them.

That may seem like blasphemy, and maybe it is a little, but you yourself don’t like everyone you meet every day. At least I don’t. I’m fairly indifferent to most people, but some people, a few of them, I actively dislike, even if I don’t know them. Maybe especially if I don’t know them.

So how do you translate that real-world distaste to your fictional characters? I’ll tell you in this internet-friendly numbered list.

1. Make the Character a Traitor

For me, disloyalty is the worst. If I can write a scene with a character who even hints around at being a traitor, I’m down on them the rest of the story. No matter what else happens. It’s an easy drive for me then, as the writer, to put that character through the wringer. They deserve it, after all.

But what if the character is a bad guy, and she’s being disloyal to other bad guys? Then that makes her very, very interesting. But it doesn’t make me like her any better.

2. Make the Character Rude to Helpless People

I particularly hate this trait in real people, in my imaginary people it drives me crazy. People who are rude to wait staff, for instance, or to service workers. Rudeness is pointless and lazy.

It’s so easy to take a moment for kindness, and when your characters just can’t be bothered, even when they’re in a position of clear superiority, that’s grounds for hating them.

3. Make the Character a Hypocrite

Ooh… this really chaps my ass in real life. Like the TV preacher who expects his congregation to tithe to him, but who doesn’t give a single dime of his own to charity. The moral-values politician who’s cheating on his wife. The cocaine-addicted prosecutor who locks minor drug offenders away for years. Those assholes.

As despicable as this trait is in your character, if it’s hidden from other characters (at least at first), it’s also dramatic irony. And readers love, love, love dramatic irony.

4. Make the Character Cruel

This is related to, but different from making a character rude. Rudeness is usually just careless, but cruelty is calculating. You have to put effort and creativity into being cruel. The guy who pretends he’s going to give a homeless guy a sandwich only to hand over an empty paper bag is one cruel bastard.

In real life, cruelty is a serious character flaw that often comes from deep-seated emotional pain. Your character should have a reason for being cruel, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to like her any better because of it.

5. Make the Character a Weasel

Everybody knows a weasel. This is the guy who doesn’t have a position of his own, he just gives a ‘yes, and’ to what someone else says. The guy who can’t stand up straight because he has no backbone. The guy who’s in it for one person alone: himself.

I have to confess, weasels are fun to write. I usually just have to think about what I would do in any particular situation, then write the opposite and amp it up times five. Doesn’t make me like the character, but it does hold my interest.