Should A Writer Start With Character Or Plot?

Scott Myers, DePaul University Professor/Screenwriter/Creator
Gointothestory.blcklst(dot)com: Begin with character, end with character, find the story
in-between. Jill Chamberlain, Screenwriter and Author
of THE NUTSHELL TECHNIQUE-Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting: Start with that
great premise “What if this happened?” And then ask yourself “Okay, who would be
the most interesting character to put into that dilemma?” Film Courage: Do writers start with character
or plot? Jill Chamberlain: You know I sometimes say
there are two kinds of writers, the ones who start with character and the ones that start
with plot. I think both are valid ways. I think however that if someone starts with
character I wouldn’t tell them that they’re wrong and that they shouldn’t. I think that if you start with plot it’s
a little easier to break story and to work with story. So the example I was saying with GROUNDHOG
DAY, if you start with the premise is far more interesting than the character. What if somebody woke up and it’s the same
day a second time? That’s a great premise, right? I want to start with that and then ask myself
well who would be the most interesting character to put in that? What if it was somebody that was naive? That probably wouldn’t work. What if it’s somebody who is a jerk? Ahh…now that helps me build the plot and
character right? So for me it works so much more naturally
and it’s much more easy to work with story to start that way. That said I know a lot of people who start
with character. They love to explore character and for a variety
of reasons. Sometimes they came from an acting background
and that is part of acting training sometimes. They like to get inside of a character’s
head. Maybe they are doing a biographical figure
and kind of have to in a way. You are starting with the character but then
you need to decide what plot moments do I want to use to help show the character’s
change and what plot moments am I going to leave out, then you kind of are necessarily
starting with character. But generally speaking if I had to pick one
of the two I would say that plot is the most easy to manipulate and to build story around
and to make sure you are creating a satisfying story. Start with that great premise, what if this
happened and then ask yourself “Okay, now who would be the most interesting character
to put into that dilemma?” Scott Myers: Begin with character, end with
character, find the story in between. I don’t care what paradigm people have with
story structure, how you get there is critical. So you start with your characters, that’s
my take. Again there is not one right way to do this. I’m just saying that this is a smart way
to go about it because the characters, it’s their story. If we’re writing a story, we are assuming
that in some magical, mystical way that story some how exists, those characters exist. And if it’s their story, they know it better
than we do and so character development is about getting curious, it’s about asking
questions, it’s about spending time with the characters and so the typical things that
we see like biographies, questionnaires, those are great. I call those Indirect Engagement Exercises
because you are reflecting on the character, you are thinking about the character. As opposed to Direct Engagement Exercises. For example, what if I have a character in
mind, I am going to imagine that I am a psychiatrist, this character is my patient and if they’re
reticent to talk to me I can even go one step further. They have been court appointed to appear with
me as a psychiatrist and they have to answer my questions and if they don’t they will
stay stuck in the situation until they do. So you just create a situation in which what
I was saying earlier just ask questions, get curious, that was a lesson I learned when
I was an Air Force brat you just ask people questions and get them talking and so you
type, you just let it go. You can even do something that is a little
bit spiritual in a way where you are going to do either a monologue or stream of consciousness
with the character. It’s sort of like the Vulcan Mind Melt in
Star Trek where you get a character in your mind and you do some deep breathing and you
get yourself so you are transitioning out of the busy world and you’re going to be
here now with this character and you set a timer for like 15 minutes, you put your fingers
on the keyboard or pen on paper and you close your eyes and you just type. And your mind will go “I’ve got to get
groceries or the cat or whatever.” Just let it go, you don’t get attached to
it and just keep coming back this character and you get done with this. And so you have all of these words that you’ve
typed out. Some of them are like dialogue (like a monologue)
and some of them are like a stream of consciousness. 80 percent of it may seem like gobbledygook
to you (maybe 90 percent) but 20 percent or 10 percent there is something really interesting
that popped out there and that is getting in touch with the characters at a subconscious
level and they start to talk to you. I’ve seen this time and time again. I created a prep class 10 years ago that I
teach online, 6 week workshop taking the story from concept to outline and the first four
weeks are all character development. The second week is brainstorming. That’s all we do it brainstorming. That’s all they do is brainstorm. And I’ve had hundreds of people tell me
that was the post eye opening experience for them was doing that type of work. Again the characters exist if you act on that
belief and we reach out to them and get them talking to us. Those are great examples of character development. What can happen out of that is if you identify
a protagonist and their state of disunity where they are disconnected from their authentic
nature and that can inform (if you know what the disunity state is) that can inform where
the unity state is. And so now they are not going to just jump
there. Then you are going to say “Okay so these
plot elements and the characters with whom they intersect they are going to deconstruct
their whole ways of being because they don’t work out here in the new world but in the
process of that they are going to uncover their need (their needs are going to start
to emerge). This is very Jungian, Jung talks about this,
he says “When an inner situation is not made conscious, (and he’s talking about
conflict, inner conflict) it happens outside as fate.” I don’t know if it’s in the real world
but that is the protagonist’s story. The protagonist starts off in a state of disunity
and what happens is informed by that, there is a synergy between them, it’s not just
these random events. It’s like these characters that they intersect
with and the events that they go through, that’s going to provide the basis of their
transformation. And so their disunity gets deconstructed. Now this stuff starts to come out in the light
of consciousness (their need) and now they move into reconstruction. Now they are moving into their new mode of
being and eventually toward unity. So you can take that raw material that you
get with your characters and you can see how it starts to shape the nature of the plot,
the story structure and it’s not just plugging this in (this has to happen on page 25 the
break into Act 2). No…you are doing it in a much more organic
fashion with your characters letting them inform you what the structure will be. The final value of that is you’re writing
multilayer richly textured characters who actors want to play. So character development to me is like everything
and it’s absolutely critical. Matthew Kalil, Screenwriter/Author/Instructor:
For me plot and the analysis of plot can be a real source of people getting stuck in their
writing because they feel they need to have a plot that works before they write. Now if you just write without a plot you can
also end up down a dark hole of loose ends that lead nowhere and just write the rest
of your life without having any structure but I find plot and the analysis of plot a
good place to be once you’ve written something but for me plot arises out of characters in
a space doing something and that creates the plot. The characters themselves are almost…it’s
like this whole separation of character and plot is not actually real when you are creating
it or watching it. Character and plot are intrinsically linked,
we separate them in order to analyze and maybe in the re-write write our stories better but
I do find that if you focus on plot and drop characters it can result in stories that are…that
feel a bit empty and it can result in stories that everyone has written before. What I find really funny about these books
on plot and some very good books are written on plot and I point to them in my book. I don’t talk about plot at all in my book
[The Three Wells of Screenwriting]. What I find really funny about books on plot
is they will say “These seven beats need to be in a story. They don’t have to be there in that order. They don’t all have to be there.” And I’m like what do you mean they don’t
have to be there? I don’t know if you’ve read closely but
there is almost a disclaimer that they don’t have to be in that order and they don’t
have to necessarily all be there. And I’m like “Well what are you really
trying to say?” So I’m slightly suspicious of generating
your idea writing from plot first. I think it can be really useful in the rewrite,
it’s definitely really useful in the story edit. I use it all the time when I’m trying to
help writers strengthen their stories. But actually the best little plot that I’ve
ever heard, the best quote on plot is not even about plot it’s from that book on filmmaking
that I mentioned earlier by Alexander Mackendrick [On Filmmaking: An Introduction to the Craft
of the Director]. He says “The only thing you need to know,
what is happening now in story, should not be as exciting or interesting as what may
or may not happen later.” What is happening now should not be as exciting
or interesting as what may or may not happen later. So something is happening later and it’s
drawing the story forward and it’s that thing that is happening later that you need
to put in your plot somewhere. So you need to know that something is going
to happen, you need to set it up so that something is going to pay off and it will drive the
story forward and that will keep people watching. I like that because it’s kind of an escapist…it’s
not really about plot but it’s kind of linked to structure in some way. So yes I am not anti-plot, as a matter of
fact I am pro-plot when it comes to analysis of the story and trying to make it stronger
because I do believe you have to take a sledgehammer to your story once you’ve written it and
hit it and if it breaks something is wrong with the structure and you need to make it
work. Professor Richard Walter, Author and UCLA
Screenwriting Program Chair: Character is story as I’ve said before. What is a character other than what she does
and what she says. I have a friend who is a TV writer and he
has a writing partner (they call him) and they collaborate. And somebody said “Oh…so you guys work
together. So you do the character and he does the story?” As if you could do that separately? Characters don’t exist outside of stories,
they exist only inside of stories. Again they are like Hamlet, they are what
they do and what they say so you can’t…when people talk about a character driven movie,
they just mean a good movie. Let me just point out to you how many movies
and plays and great classics is just the name of the protagonist of the main character. For example Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo
and Juliet, Julius Caesar. How about we go back to the Greeks: Medea,
Oedipus. Look at the great movies, THE GODFATHER, CITIZEN
KANE. It’s not always that way but more often
than not it’s the name of the character that is often the name of the movie (the name
of the protagonist) and I only mention it in this context because I am trying to indicate
to you you can’t separate story and character. Which is more important? That’s like asking somebody “What is more
important to you, your heart or your lungs?” Sometimes in the law they refer to separately
to plot and something they call sequence of events. But to me plot is the sequence of events. Plot, sequence of events, story – these are
synonyms at least in lay terms. And it’s the most important thing and the
heart is the most difficult and elusive thing to achieve is a good story. I could paint for you a world of a wacky-crazy,
kind of a character and there are workshops that actually do this. You just invent characters about what kind
of tree she would be if she were a tree and what kind of candy bar she would eat if she
ate a candy bar. And people feel all kind of…as they create
these things but it’s nonsense. I think it’s actually anti-useful because
it suggests that characters exists outside of stories what I want to hear is when students
pitch their stories in my class they are orally telling the story to me and the eight writers
around the table including themselves. What I want to hear is what do we see and
what do we hear. I don’t want to hear that “Harry enters,
he had a job years ago and he never got along with his mother. He’s the kind of guy that…” Please! Just tell me…I mean how is the audience
sitting in the movie theater going to get that. They are going to get that from what they
see and what they hear. Nobody is going to be sitting next to them
whispering in their ear “Let me tell you about this part and what I was trying to do
here.” So that is what I want to see in the class
from the writer “We see this, we hear that.” That’s what readers for agents and production
companies want to see on the page “We see this, we hear that.” That’s all there is and everything else
has to come out of that. Peter Desberg, Author [NOW THAT’S FUNNY],
Screenwriter and Psychologist: So finally in answer to your question. Jeffrey Davis, Author [NOW THAT’S FUNNY],
Screenwriter, Loyola Marymount Professor: Yes, I knew we’d get there eventually. Film Courage: I’m patient. Peter Desberg: If you gave us a premise we
would eagerly take a shot at it knowing that where we started would not be the place where
it ended. And it was particularly fascinating in the
book [NOW THAT’S FUNNY! The Art and Craft of Writing Comedy] where
we had teams working where they would just start riffing and the other would pick it
up and they would go back and then the other would go back and they would just go back
and forth. Jeffrey Davis: Or they would change it, they
would say we don’t know anything about mothers and daughters but fathers and sons we know
a lot about so let’s make it a father and son. In one case (my favorite interview) the grandparents
are just lightly mentioned in the premise and Lou Schneider made it a story more about
the grandparents and the mother than the daughter. The daughter kind of got lost in it. So that’s the other thing is I think that
the book does something that I’ve never seen a book do before. It replicates (not because of us, because
of the writers), it replicates what a writers room would be like because a writer’s room
you come in, you might have the arc of the season, you might have those things, but you
need episodes along that line and they’ll pitch an idea and somebody will go “That’s
not going to work.” Or “We did that three years ago,” or blah,
blah, blah whatever it is. But ideas come in the room and as Peter said
they are not the same at the end as when they started. Peter Desberg: Now I’m going to take us
back to your question. When Jeffrey and I were starting we took a
slightly academic view one day and said “What’s your prediction about the approach they’re
going to take? Are they going to go more for story or are
they going to go more for character?” And we found out the answer is neither, they
went for conflict. So if you were to give us a premise to develop,
the very first step we would take is “Okay whatever the premise is, where do we get conflict
out of it?” If there are two characters involved, how
can we make them but heads to do something because everything would come out of that. Scott Myers: Again, there is not one right
way to do this. I’m just saying that this I think is a smart
way to go about it because the characters, it’s their story. Jill Chamberlain: You know I sometimes say
that there are two kinds of writers. The ones that start with character and the
ones that start with plot. I think that both are valid ways.

27 Replies to “Should A Writer Start With Character Or Plot?

  1. Character v Plot is a trippy subject for sure. Thinking about it, I realize that I begin with plot and a soft preconceived ending and let the character dictate everything from there, including how the story ends up ending.

  2. Yes. Both.

    Groundhog Day example from Jill Chamberlain was great. Sure, the premise is the dominant force, but you can't get far without the character putting the meat on the skeleton, i.e. beyond the premise.

    It's like debating if you should start running with your left or right foot. Doesn't really matter since the other will come immediately after anyway, or else you'll be hopping instead of running.

  3. I find that I always start with characters because I am more interested in opposing ideas under a similar theme and what they are willing to do to prove themselves, its hard for me to find out a plot when I think that I should try to think of how one of my characters would solve it 🤷‍♂️ Thanks as always for the video ❤❤❤

  4. In the terms of a GM, there are about… six basic plots. Keeping in mind, conflict is the central premise of an RPG, there just aren't many other things for a group of Players to get excited about…
    "Patience my ass, I'm only here to kill something."

    A GM is stuck beginning with Characters, and as stated in the vid', it's THEIR story. So everything else that goes on in the game/story, is about how I can toss interesting antagonists at them, with enough variety to keep them engaged…

    1. Murder (It's as simple as it sounds)
    2. Revenge (isn't always murdering you back)
    3. Kidnapping/Imprisonment/Theft (person or object, it's the same thing)
    4. Scout/Infiltrate (get information)
    5. Delivery (message or mcguffin, it's the same thing)
    6. Escape/Rescue (whether prison break, or personal egress from something else)

    ANY other story you're likely to get involved with can ultimately be boiled down to some combination of these basic plots… The only "uniqueness" is the wrapping you put on it. The Characters, the scenery, the backgrounds, set dressings, and major or minor Players involved… including the environment. Knowing this principle, you don't particularly need to worry so much about plotting, but how your Characters (once you have them) are going to interact with that Plot…

    Yes, in D&D, along with most other RPG's, there's a WHOLE LOT of murder. In battle scenes (simultaneously, the most and least obvious) the Murder, isn't just soldier on soldier violence. The Murder is the ultimate goal… the general of the "enemy" army, or the leader of this particular detachment of that army… Detective stories, tend to start with the "murder Plot" and lead straight into the scouting plots, the infiltration plot, and a Revenge plot… Sometimes with and sometimes without a "delivery" plot, because a good Police Detective DELIVERS his information (mcguffin of evidence) to his superiors, so the courts can lend to the revenge plot where we don't encourage detectives to "just shoot the bad guy".

    Good stories come about not because the plot was so fantastically well done. They come from the peculiar Characters that added their weight to the set dressing…

    I agree that Plot is a fine thing for examination and "fixing" after you've written something. Otherwise, you'll end up trying to pitch something plotted like a D&D arc… which more closely resembles a plate of spaghetti hurled at a wall than anything like a geometric arc.
    Sometimes, it's worth checking in with a Plot design before you finish, just to avoid too many rabbit-holes of never-ending writing.

    Maybe see how many of YOUR favorite stories can be broken down to the "top six"… You might be surprised. Plot is simple… Character… that's tougher. It's definitely more fun… probably BECAUSE it's tougher. ;o)

  5. Needed this. Have been exploring ideas for so long and am trying to get a final treatment with a clear plot and character connection by Dec 31. This helps a lot!!

  6. They are inseparable. All of my films/screenplay started with, "what if this guy/girl had this happen to them?" That's it. Guy survives cancer, has to pick up the pieces. Woman's husband has a child with her college roommate. Kid messes with his brother's Ph.D science project.

    Kind of an impossible question when you think about it. Lost dog has to find his way home. Kid gets left behind in a house that's the target of burglers. You need an subect and an action. A noun and a verb.

  7. With "Breaking Bad" Vince Gilligan said "We're going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." He didn't do much plotting, but he knew exactly where it was going.

    When his friend suggested to him as a joke that if their post "X-files" writing career doesn't get off the ground, they can always rent a winnebago and go off into the boonies and cook crystal meth, they laughed about it, but then he thought "I wonder what kind of middle-aged man would do something like that?" – "Breaking Bad" is the answer.

    Your characters dictate the plot, but the plot can define your characters – in a way they already have, you've chosen them to be participants in your narrative experiment; you must have chosen them for a reason.

  8. I will always start with characters simply because I have trouble with abstract 'What if?' propositions. I'm more interested in why people are the way they are, what they want, who they love, what they are afraid of. Maybe I'm not the best plotter in the world. Every writer has their strengths and weaknesses, but there is no 'right' way to start a story.

  9. The fact that this issue is being debated and discussed is evidence that the whole process is less formulaic than we sometimes pretend it to be. The development of creative works is not set in stone. Ideas, characters, and plot can spring into the imagination randomly. (Which, of course, does come across in the video).

  10. Characters are more interesting to me, so I start with a character. I know where I want him or her at the end. Developing a strong and interesting plot, twists and turns, are essential to get them there.

  11. shes dead wrong. groundhog day about a character that needs to change, the plot is an engaging way for HIM to change. she doesn't even understand what she's us describing that its really not about plot at all but character by herself stating that it doesn't work if its another character.

  12. When I wrote my book Prelude to a Distant Future, it started with the "What if" theory, then I asked "Who?" But with another book, it was the opposite. I guess I think it depends on the book as well as circumstance.

  13. Yeah, the characters in a story are what's important. But on the other hand, most people who practice "discovery writing" and do anything longer than short to medium length standalone novels do get in trouble later on rather more often than not. Bad recent examples are GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels and Patrick Rothfuss who derailed his three parter pretty early on with is undisciplined meandering and lack of structure and pace.

    So, create your characters, the environmental influences they are under and how these shape them, but then plot out what will happen before you start writing 1000 pages about them.

    Discovery writing pulls you into a novel with these intrigueing characters and premises and then spits you out halfway through because it's going on and on in ever more rambly meandering that ends nowhere.

  14. I've been reading and hearing about the famous "What if" as the question to ask yourself when generating ideas I find that is just not enough for me.

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