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How to Find the Right Plot for Your Character

28 Jan
Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious."

Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious.”

I was talking to a writer the other day who said that, if it was up to her, she’d write nothing but character development. Her characters would talk to each other and occasionally wind up in interesting circumstances, but not much would happen. Her solution was to create a detailed outline—the kind that takes several weeks to create. This is a terrific idea, even if many writers are initially opposed to it. But what if you can’t find the right plot for the outline?

One of the best novels I’ve read lately also has a plot that perfectly fits its narrator. Long Division by Kiese Laymon is one of the competitors in the The Morning News Tournament of Books, and you can read an excerpt from the novel at Gawker.

How the Story Works

Long Division is about a teenager who gets the opportunity to compete in a national competition. Even from that vague description, it’s clear how the plot fits the character. Teenage kids all over America are dreaming about one day competing in the Super Bowl, World Series, or in March Madness. Almost all of our biggest celebrities are athletes; every two years at the Olympics, athletes from sports that exist on the fringe suddenly become the center of our national attention, setting themselves up for a brief moment of fame and corporate sponsorship. But this kind of competition isn’t confined to sports. It turns academic study into contests of knowledge like Jeopardy! and the Scripts National Spelling Bee. Every high school kid who takes the SAT or ACT is given a score and ranked against the other test takers, and those rankings help feed the competition for spots in select universities.

In short, any plot about a contest provides a good story for a teenage character. The trick is to find a contest that taps into the character’s hopes and fears.

In Long Division, Kiese Laymon has created a character named Citoyen (City) Coldson, a teenage African-American boy from Jackson, Mississippi. Keep that description in mind as you read this paragraph about the contest he faces:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV.

The passage immediately conflates “civil rights and the English language.” The competition is about word usage rather than spelling because (as stated earlier in the novel) the Scripts Spelling Bee was deemed racially and geographically biased. In this novel, and in this new competition, race is impossible to avoid. In fact, it’s put at the center of the story and televised to the world.

Watch how the first contestant, Coldson’s best friend, handles the word lascivious:

“If lascivious photographs of Amber Rose were found on Mr. White’s office computer,” LaVander began, “then the odds are higher than the poverty rate in the Mississippi Delta that Mr. Jay White would still keep his job at the college his great-great-grandfather founded.”

Coldson gets the next word:

“Your first word, Citoyen, is…‘niggardly.’”

Without uttering a syllable, I ran back to our dressing room and got my brush. “I just think better with this in my hand,” I told the voice when I got back.

“No problem. ‘Niggardly,’ Citoyen.”

“For real? It’s no problem?” I looked out into the white lights hoping somebody would demand they give me another word—not because I didn’t know how to use it, but because it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.

“Etymology, please?” I asked him.

“From Old Norse nigla.”

Nigla? That’s funny. Am I pronouncing the word right? ‘Nigga’dly.’ Pronunciation, please.”

“Nig-gard-ly,” he said. “Citoyen, you have 30 more seconds.”

The beauty of this moment is that the contest has been made intensely personal for the character. Broadly speaking, its very existence is meant to serve kids like him. So, he’s already in the spotlight, simply because of who he is. The contest becomes acutely personal, though, when he’s given a word that he doesn’t know. He’s set up to look and feel inadequate. Finally, the broader issues of the contest meet the personal aspects because the word has racial overtones due to its similarity to another word. Given the nature of the contest and the character, it’s the perfect word to create tension and suspense and to force the character to act in ways that not only move the plot forward to reveal depth of character.

If you’re wondering what happens next, you can find out here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try finding the right plot for a character, using the excerpt from Long Divison by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Choose a general plot vehicle that is appropriate for your character. Describe your character in the vaguest way possible (the way people are described in personal ads or by the police)—40-year-old white male, 16-year-old Hispanic female, middle class mother of three, retired widower living on a pension. What life events does that character typically (or stereotypically) encounter? Common examples that often find their way into stories include contests, marriage, divorce, coming-of-age, starting over, searching for someone (relative, someone to love), caring for elderly parent or child or dog, escaping something bad (war, old friends, neighborhood, family), making the grade, getting the promotion, etc.
  2. Summarize why the plot vehicle is particularly suited (generally speaking) to your character. This is where you begin to tie the plot to a few particulars of character: Getting laid off is particularly painful for a 50-year-old woman because she’s forced to compete for a job with younger people in an age-ist society. Tracking down your birth parents in rural Nevada is particularly difficult for someone who lives in New York and doesn’t have a driver’s license.
  3. Make the plot vehicle acutely personal. This can be done by accentuating the mechanics of the plot. In the excerpt from Long Division, the mechanics of the contest (contestants are given a word to use in a sentence) become accentuated when the character doesn’t know the word. That’s why the novel shows the mechanics of the contest: the back-and-forth between contestant and moderator, the question about etymological origin, the pushing against the rules when City runs to his dressing room to get his brush. Each of these mechanical details about the contest heightens the tension. In my examples, the 50-year-old woman interviewing for a job might be put into a group interview with a room full of recent college graduates. The person tracking down his birth parents in rural Nevada might arrange a ride from a friend-of-a-friend who doesn’t show up, leaving the character stranded.
  4. Connect the personal with the general. The key is to make the plot obstacles reflect or tap into the character’s hopes and fears. In Long Division, the plot taps into City’s complex feelings about race. When he’s given his word, he thinks that “it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.” For him, it’s one thing to have the limits of his knowledge clearly defined, but it’s another thing entirely to have them defined in front of white people. In my examples, perhaps the 50-year-old job seeker has a college-grad child who wouldn’t fit in with the group interviewers, either. Or maybe the birth-parent seeker feels that he’s  been protected or insulated from certain harsher realities of the world.

As writers, we often resist thinking about character and plot at such a schematic level, but in any story—but especially a novel—this sort of clarity is often required to keep the plot from running out of steam. If you know the mechanics of the plot, you can manipulate them to keep the plot running.

Good luck!

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