The beginning, commonly called the setup, is the initial action of the situation, presented to us as a problem to be solved.
The beginning defines your characters and the wants of your major character (or characters). Aristotle says a character wants either happiness or misery. When you ask yourself, “What does my character want?” you’ve begun the journey of plot.
This want (or need) is called intent. Wanting something leads to motivation—why a character does what he does.
So every plot starts with an intent, a want or a need.
The Roots of the End Lie in The Beginning
Some plots are idea-driven: an idea (philosophical, religious, political, autobiographical, etc.) demands something. It intends something, some form of change.
In idea-driven plots, the beginning is where this idea is established, and the characters and events contribute to developing that idea.
Other plots are character-driven. This is particularly popular in commercial fiction, where escape into the mental state and experience of a fictional person is an essential element in the reader’s enjoyment. In this case, the demands of the plot fall squarely on the characters, and their intentions and motivations provide the counter-action to the opposing antagonistic events of the plot.
Happiness or Misery
Even characters in idea-driven stories should be well-formed, with thoughtful intentions and motivations that support the idea to be developed throughout a literary work.
And so Aristotle’s admonition that a character wants either happiness or misery should be carefully considered.
We tend to think of “happiness” or “misery” as individual emotions, with specific, static characteristics, like the emoji’s in our text messages.
In reality, an entire spectrum of emotions range between and around those two states of simple “happiness” and “misery.” Contentment, jealousy, greed, wealth, travel, entertainment, vengeance, justice, all of these emotional responses are on the “Happy or Miserable” table.
In the beginning, each of the major characters is taken for a turn in front of the reader, reacting to events that obstruct the characters’ intentions. The obstructive events are the counter-argument of the story idea (whether driven by character intention or idealogy), while the protagonist and his allies react to those obstructive events in a way that seeks to fulfill their intention, or fail trying.
It is the interplay between those antagonistic events of the story and the intentions of character or idea that the plot lives. The events themselves are window-dressing. There used to be a pulp-fiction cottage industry in cheap paperbacks that were simple “Westerns in Space,” with only the scenery changed to protect the innocent. The plot, the core struggle at the center of these stories between the protagonists and their circumstances, were sufficiently universal that “Tombstone” and “Star Station Beta-Nine” were interchangeable.
Once the relationship between the story’s antagonistic energy and the protagonist’s intentions have been established, the real story can begin.
Tips for Beginnings
Plot is not a container. It might seem like it “holds” everything, like some sort of bucket. It doesn’t.
Plot is a force of cohesion that permeates, binds together, and holds the story elements to account for each other. It is the “through-line” from beginning to end, the intention of the author filtered through the intentions of heroes and villains each demanding something.
Remember last time I talked about “unity of plot,” in terms of beginning, middle, and end? Plot also requires a unity of theme through that field. The intention of the characters (good and bad alike) must therefore all be related to the same plot problem, they must be demanding the same something.
Hitchcock liked to refer to an inconsequential something as a MacGuffin. The thing the character’s want is ultimately unimportant, because the author’s intention is to explore how the characters succeed or fail in their struggle to achieve their desire. So ask yourself: What’s my MacGuffin? What’s the one thing all my characters want? How do they each uniquely approach the achievement of their desire?
Middles Are Where Things Get Hairy
Next time, I’ll share a few thoughts from Aristotle on the nature and function of middles in relation to plot. We’ll look at certain advantages plotters have over pantsers, some pantser strategies for dealing with plot (because, sorry, you still need one, but it’s not like you think).
Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments below!