Discovering Story Magic

Laura Baker

by Laura Baker

Writers often ask why it’s so important to pay attention to character development when plotting. What they’re really talking about are character arc and story arc, and here’s the thing. Plot–story arc–is about “doing.” Plot is about making choices, doing things. Plot is where the action is. And because of all this, it can seem that plot is where the story is, and therefore we better worry about whether we have an interesting plot, enough of a plot, enough things happening.

But this kind of thinking is equating story with plot, when in fact story is character. Let’s say you ask someone what her story is about and hear something like, “So, it’s the story about this guy and he finds the body of a woman in his apartment. And the cops, they think he’s the killer. So, he’s got to find the killer, right?”

Now, we can actually see the possibility of complications, stuff happening, chases, double-crosses, ambushes. We can see events and plot. We have the external struggle. What we don’t have is the internal struggle and the insight. What we don’t have is any idea of who this guy is or what the point is of the struggle. What is the purpose? What is at risk? What will he learn? What we don’t have is the character. We don’t know why this struggle even matters.

The plot may be where the struggle is. But character is where the story is. Character is what a story is “really” about.

A problem I see a lot is that events occur to writers and they pile on  motivations and pasts for the characters in order to make something happen. But all this does is muddy the characters instead of clarifying them. There is also the pitfall that adding plot and motivations feels like upping the conflict and, in a sense, even layering the character, when in fact the result is that the reader doesn’t know what to care about because the motivations keep changing.

The mistake really comes from thinking of story as plot instead of thinking of story as character. Story is not a string of events, even if they are increasingly dire to the hero or heroine. Action doesn’t drive a story. Action drives emotions. And it’s emotion that drives a story. And emotion is all about character.

Your story–just like a sports game–forces your character to strive to win and to risk losing. And where we see these forces at their most powerful is within the turning points. Turning points are really the scoreboard for your reader, helping her keep track of where the hero and/or heroine are at in facing and overcoming their obstacles–and most importantly, the turning points are landmarks in the story of how the hero has changed.


Laura Baker has over two decades of experience as a writer, teacher, and coach. Her national award nominations include the National Reader’s Choice and the RITA, and her articles have been published in the Writer’s Digest and newsletters across the country. She’ll be teaching“Discovering Story Magic” from January 3-February 13

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