A while ago, we interviewed one of our favorite writers, Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and nine other books. Not only is she an amazing novelist, she’s also a brilliant teacher. After reading an interview we did with Caroline, Katharine Herndon, a member of James River Writers, asked a very simple question: She wanted to know what Caroline meant by “mapping a story by moral wants and needs.” We asked Caroline and her response was nothing short of game-changing in terms of storytelling. It made us think about constructing a plot in a whole new way. Here is what she said:
I always feel that you want to figure out: What is the specific long-standing thing your protagonist has gotten wrong about herself or himself and the world that the plot will force him or her to overcome in order to have a shot at what she or he wants? For example, take Kramer vs. Kramer. Kramer’s wrong about (and he doesn’t even know it yet) that the purpose of his life is to have a high-powered job in NYC, work 16 hours a day, neglect his wife and little boy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing because he’s providing for them, and he equates that with love. His boy doesn’t know him and his wife leaves him–with the kid. So the plot forces him to be the one thing he is not–a father. And through that experience, he comes to realize that what he wanted–to be the CEO–is not what he NEEDS. What he NEEDS is to be a loving father, which allows him to be a loving friend, and then possibly, in the future, a loving partner to someone.
I call this the Rolling Stone method of plotting. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try–sometimes–you can be lucky enough to get what you need, which is usually the opposite of what you want.
-So I start out asking, what is it the character wants and why?
-What’s at stake if he (or she) doesn’t get it?
-What is the character wrong about that he doesn’t even realize yet but is holding him back?
-What is the character ghost–the thing from his (or her) past that haunts him and keeps him from moving on that he must heal?
-What is the inciting action–this is something that pushes the protagonist into an inner and outer struggle with his misbelief. (Like Kramer who has to work less–the thing he believes he has to do more of!)
All the protagonist’s plans fail and fail until what I call the Big Doom moment, when he realizes all is lost. The girl or guy will never be won. The job is finished. The funds are gone. And then, in that moment, the character has a self-revelation. He realizes the misconception he had. For Kramer, it was when his wife comes back and wants the child –the one thing he thought he wanted at the beginning of the novel. Only now he loves his child, adores being a father, and he needs to keep him and fight for him. The protagonist fights for this new idea.
The last part is the New Equilibrium, where we get to see the character acting differently now that this misconception has been cleared up. Kramer is a dad with a ho-hum job, but he doesn’t care about the job or prestige anymore. He cares about being a father.
If you give your character lots of moral choices until he becomes who he should become, you get a deeper novel. A moral choice, by the way, is being stuck between two terrible choices, like, I can rob the store to get the medicine my dying wife needs and go to jail, or I can be a good citizen, and stay out of jail so at least I can be with my wife when she dies. Both are terrible! But humans show us their best selves when they are at their worst.
Writers: Please take this most excellent advice and run with it!