"What is the difference between a good story and an outstanding one?"
That's a question one of my students asked a couple of weeks ago. We all talked about the question and after 10 minutes or so one of them remarked that from what we had said, it clearly isn't the plot that's the really crucial point. And that's true. Although plots might look original - and even be original in their details - we all know there's only a fairly small number of basic plots that are reworked again and again in different settings and with different characters. What can make one of these plots structures work, and appear fresh, is the marriage of plot and character. Or perhaps the menage à trois of plot, character and situation.
In writing a story, what we strive for is inevitability. Once the ball starts to roll, the nature of the characters must mean that there can be only one possible outcome. It must be inevitable. But - and here's the tricky bit - it must not be predictable. It can be predictable in retrospect - indeed, it must be predictable in retrospect as that's pretty much the definition of inevitability. So when you look back, from the end of the story, you see that it couldn't have been any other way, but while you are working your way through the story, everything must come as a surprise. It's a tall order.
Take Hamlet: if he had the character of Macbeth, he'd just have challenged Claudius and brought the whole thing to a crisis, probably have killed him and taken over as king. A one-act non-tragedy. And if Hamlet were given Macbeth's situation, he would have done nothing and waited for fate to bring him the crown of Scotland in its own good time. A many-act non-tragedy. But the characters of Hamlet and Macbeth are such that, in the situations they are given, their tragedies are inevitable. That's what we need to achieve.
Latest book - Evolution, Octopus, September 2014