Updated: Nov 26, 2018
Character, plot and...err...the other one.
Like the pyramids of Giza, stories are built from three solid foundations. Holding up the weight of the tale, when the three work in harmony they bring a story to life and raise it to become exceptional. Yet take even one out and everything crumbles, and, like a pyramid with only two sides, you’re left with nothing but rubble.
Character, plot and...err...
It’s just no one can ever quite remember what the third one is.
"What is the most important thing to a story: character or plot?". This was the question I was recently asked by a friend, and it bugged me. At first I couldn’t understand why: the question is not offensive, too personal or particularly unusual; it is not on a subject I know nothing about, and out of all the people my friend knows I am the person they are most likely to ask.
So what was the problem with it?
After a few days of my subconscious brain doing some thinking – arguably the only part of my brain that does any of that – it came to me. The question had bugged me because it was the wrong thing to ask and there was something it was missing. By asking ‘What is more important to story - character or plot?’ my friend had inadvertently omitted one of the three core foundations of story. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they’d gone and followed this up by asking which foundation is most important: a query tantamount to asking which wheel of a car is more needed. Hence the question was absurd, but why? First it helps to talk about story foundations.
The foundations of story are three categories of things that all stories have to contain in order to be considered stories. They are essentially questions that any story has to answer in order to exist. The first two – plot and character – are the ‘What happens?’ and ‘Who is it about?’ questions the story has to answer, and are the two integral parts everyone immediately thinks of when a story comes to mind. For example, when you’re discussing with your friend about this amazing new movie you saw at the cinema and they ask you ‘What’s it about?’, your first response is likely to be “It’s about a person who does such and such”, which is essentially you saying "it’s about CHARACTER who does PLOT”. Character and plot are as obviously integral to story as an engine and wheels are to a car.
The third foundation, however, although equally as important, is more obscure and not so often mentioned: setting. Setting is the ‘Where does it take place?’ part of a story and includes not only the physical location/s of the story’s action but also the time periods it takes place within to give the story its physical context. In terms of our car analogy, if we were building the car, we’d need to know how big it was in order to make sure the engine and wheels could fit into and onto it. Hence the physical context (setting) is an integral part.
Therefore, setting joins character and plot as the foundations to story because they are all necessary for the story to exist. Take away any one of them and story becomes something else. For example:
You have a setting and character but no plot? This is a mere situation. No action is taking place to form a sequence of events that make a story.
You have a setting and plot but no character? This is a mere event. Something is taking place somewhere but no one is present: there is no character experiencing it, so there is no tangible way for you to show what is happening to your audience. Like an unobserved tree falling in a forest, does it make a sound?
You have a plot and character but no setting? This is an imagining. There’s no way the action can unfold if it’s not unfolding in a physical area within a world.
As you can see, take away any of the story’s three foundations and you end up with at best a tangible situation and at worst an intangible idea: potentially brilliant in your head, but with no means of the audience being partial to it. Stories exist when they contain all three of their foundations, and grow stronger the more comprehensively they answer the questions these foundations pose.
Want to write a story? Start with a foundation and build upwards from there. You never know, just like the Pyramids at Giza, your words may one day be the bedrock of civilisations.
View Part II of this post, Foundations to the Firmament, here.
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