Rebecca Petruck: Let the Main Character Drive the Bus

Rebecca Petruck

Rebecca Petruck

You know how “Show Don’t Tell” is both true and kind of meaningless these days? I think the same about “Start with Action.” That advice drives me crazy because it’s incomplete: “Start with an Action that Reveals the MC’s Character.”

Imagine if The Hunger Games opened with Katniss volunteering. It would be dramatic, and we’d think her brave for taking her sister’s place. But would we be invested in the decision? A lot of people are surprised when I lay out the actual opening of The Hunger Games:

  • Katniss wakes up alone—Prim isn’t there (motivating fear);
  • Katniss sneaks across the perimeter to hunt (not afraid to break what she considers senseless rules; demonstrates a skill);
  • talks with Gale (establishes rules of world; her focus on survival blinds her to his feelings);
  • stops by the market and to see the mayor’s daughter to trade (confidence in navigating her world);
  • prepares for the reaping (Katniss’ soft side revealed in her care for Prim);
  • at the reaping (Katniss’ view of the world).

hunger gamesLaid out like that, the scenes don’t sound very exciting do they? And, they take up twenty pages of space. Yet, the opening of The Hunger Games is deeply compelling because of the sense of dread hanging over every moment and because we are getting to know a fascinating and contrary character. On the surface, Suzanne Collins didn’t start with action that seems particularly interesting, but she started with the right action to reveal her MC’s character.

Which is why when I work with critique partners, the thing I often get most passionate about is plot. Plot is the action the MC takes to reach her external goal, and that action ultimately must reveal not only her true, internal goal but also her soul, the “Why” of everything she does. That’s a lot to ask of an action which is why a well-conceived plot is essential. I don’t care what happens next; I care how what happens next affects the MC.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron discusses the action-reaction-decision triad of effective scene-making, which I interpret as plot-character-character.

Characters in a truck! Rebecca and her parents.

Characters in a truck!
Rebecca and her parents.

Plot is the speeding bus your MC can’t get off. How she reacts to her situation and the things she decides to do because of it is what your story is about. In itself, plot is fairly passive—it’s a bus. The driver is the reason we care.

Once you know your MC well, certain decisions become inevitable, which means key elements of plot become inevitable, too. That doesn’t mean your plot becomes predictable. It’s that the logic that guides your MC’s decisions means certain actions must follow. Plot unveils that logic and reveals a compelling and unpredictable character. Often, because your MC’s worldview is skewed by some conditioning event, not only can’t the reader predict how the MC will react and what she will decide, but also the MC is frequently surprised, too. This cycle reveals the MC not only to the reader but to herself, and forces her to react and make more decisions that lead to the internal change she may not be aware she needs and actively resists.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and "plot cattle prods" while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and “plot cattle prods” while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

In that sense, don’t look at plot as “What Happens Next.” Look at plot as the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal her strengths, weaknesses, professed goals, and secret goals, often unacknowledged even to herself. Plot is what lays bare your MC, peeling back layer after layer of flesh until we finally glimpse the beating heart. I like the way Cron decribes this, “…the heart of the story doesn’t lie in what happens; it beats in what those events mean to the protagonist.”

What does this mean in the practical sense of putting words on the page? Try out your MC in a variety of scenarios, looking for actions that she will resist the most, that will draw the strongest reactions, and force the most difficult decisions. Dig past your first two, three, four ideas and see what happens when you get down to the fifth or sixth. Once you’ve collected a number of actions your MC will particularly detest, check out Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s an effective tool for organizing those actions into a plot. You may download a Beat Sheet HERE.

In short, seeking the answer to a question your characters want answered should lead them to the question they actually need answered. Seeking requires movement. Plot creates that movement and in doing so reveals your characters’ true selves.

Rebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, the L.A. Times, and Christian Science Monitor also have spotlighted the novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE.  Remember to follow her on Twitter  @RebeccaPetruck.

Rebecca is giving away a synopsis + 25p critique and follow-up phone call/Skype! All who comment on this post are eligible to win.

And check out the Exercise Book for a modified version of the Beat Sheet tailored for KidLit Summer School!

Rebecca will lead #KidlitSummerSchool at 9:00 pm EST tonight for the first #30mdare! You can read more about those at the bottom of this POST