Minding Your 4Ps and QS:
One Wordplayer's Approach to Writing
the Character-and-Plot-Driven Novel
by John H. Ritter
[This article appeared in Writer Magazine, March 2006.]
Regardless of what they say, editors prefer stories. Sure, they'll give you all that talk about finding “a fresh voice, memorable characters, and stunning prose.” But if you distill down any editorial feedback you may have received in a "not-right-for-our-list" rejection letter—the whole “I did not feel an emotional connection to the characters” business, or “they lacked motivation,” or "the scenes felt rather contrived”—chances are you’ll find that most of these comments are just convoluted ways of saying, “I wanted you to tell me a story.”
Were the editor a fiction writer (and most aren’t, but that’s a good thing, believe me), then she might've also added, “Look, if you put this character in peril or in a strange predicament and have her figure out an escape plan—the riskier/funnier/wilder/scarier, the better—then put the plan into action, I will be fully involved with your story and your character.”
Sounds simple, right? But, you see, there is a problem.
Writers tend to fall into two camps. Either we are in that large group—the wordsmiths—who love the beauty and musicality of language, love metaphor and rhythm and word play, or we’re in that much smaller group who may not be great word workers, but have a knack for telling stories full of suspense, surprises, and twists—and populating the bestseller lists for weeks. Their words may lack luster, but their tales cause readers to pause at the final page saying, “Oh, of course! I get it. I never saw that coming. Wow.”
Editors see way too many poetical, internal, literary, character-driven bridge-to-nowhere novels crawl across their desks—and those are just the ones turned in by published writers—to get overly excited by yet another wordwizard trying to dazzle and delight one’s way into the business. Not that editors don’t love that “fresh voice, using memorable characters, painted in stunning prose.” They only wish a real storyteller’s story were attached.
So a long time ago, after receiving too many of "those" rejection letters cited above, but not willing to become a plodding plotter, I asked myself, "Why not blend the two styles?" As one who ran with the wordsmithing pack, and who still tends to fret over plot more than "stunning prose," I began to search for a way to combine my word painting abilities with the ancient art of storytelling. And eventually, I developed an exercise that helped me do just that.
I still use this technique for my works-in-progress and in writers workshops when teaching story structure. Often I spend hours, spread over days, teaching all the fine details involved in this concept. But here, I’ll hit the high points, which will be enough to convey the concept and get you started along the road to publishing that rarest of all books—the multi-dimensional character-and-plot-driven novel. I call the method, “Minding Your 4Ps and QS.”
It breaks down this way. The start of a story requires three elements which begin with the letter “P.” Give me a Person in a Place with an intriguing Problem, as soon as you can, and I’m in. Until these three elements are clearly in place, your story will stumble around going nowhere. Though even then, you don’t really have a story. Only when you add the fourth “P”—a Plan—does your story begin to take shape.
Why? Because no one really cares about your beaten-down, introspective, whiney, sensitive—albeit fully drawn, provocative, nuanced, and eccentric—little guy with a problem until we find out what the guy plans to do about it.
Still, even at this point—often three or four chapters into the book—you have no story. Not yet. What we, as readers, need now is to see the character put the Plan into action, i.e., to launch the Quest. Then, and only then, do you have the primordial stew of a story.
The midsection of the novel—say, from Chapter 3 or so to the last few chapters—tends to be comprised of this Person in a Place (in time, in space, in genre, in consequence) facing a series of Problems, Plans, and Quests, each one of these trios escalating in emotion and fury while the story builds a single, double, or even triple helix of intrigue and tension, until the character, engaged in the final plan, somehow reaches the moment of truth—the Solution.
Ah, but the midsection is where the artistic writer has an edge. You see, what story-plotters don't realize is that in good fiction what's most important is not what happens, but how your characters respond to what happens. That’s where the intrigue lies and the emotional connections are made. And the more interesting the response, both psychologically and dramatically, the better.
Your ending can be happy or sad, the victor can be good or bad—there are no rules, except that it must be satisfying. The ending must make sense with all that has gone before.
And, ta-da! That’s it. Story in a nutshell. (Or done my way, it’s more of a story in a nut's hell—but that's another story.) At any rate, this is the touchstone I use to keep my novels on track and avoid the curse of the wordwizards.
Employing my “4Ps and QS” method will help you start with stronger beginnings and avoid the slow spots in the midsection. With the plot in place, you'll actually enjoy revising your work as you plant the foreshadows of newly dreamed up twists and revelations or as you color in the scenic details while wordsmithing your final draft into a work of art.
And best of all, you will very likely get published.
© 2006 by John H. Ritter. All rights reserved.