Writing advice is bullshit on a good day. Though as I’m wont to note, bullshit fertilizes, and so we continue to share it and give it with the notion that maybe a scattering of it over your garden will help your story-plants grow. Maybe it won’t. And that’s okay, too. But here at the end of the world (okay, not really the end of the world I don’t think, I’m probably just being a little dramatic), it feels somehow fruitless to even talk about this stuff. Like we’re just polishing silver in a housefire, or jerking off during a hurricane. Stop jerking off. There’s a hurricane. Evacuate, for shit’s sake.
No, no, I said evacuate.
Still, this stuff is on my mind as I ramp up to write a new story (cough cough, the Wanderers sequel), and the other day on Twitter there’d been some discussion — started by agent Dongwon Song — about character taking precedence over plot, or leading into plot, or what have you. And I’ve said as much myself, that for me, plot is Soylent Green: it’s made of people. Characters do shit and say shit, and they do so in pursuit of solving problems, chasing desires, and escaping fears. As they do this, they create plot. It’s watching an ant colony forming — they’re making art, chewing those tunnels. Characters are doing that. But of course, lots of folks also write differently and consider plot considerations first, and then slot in characters who fit that plot, and that’s fine, too. It’s all fine. The only bad way to write is a way that stops you from writing and readers from reading it. That’s it.
I do want to talk about a practical example of this, though, as it’s fresh on my mind (despite the END OF THE WORLDSYNESS going on all around us right now).
Anybody watch the show Sex Education on Netflix?
Good show. Walks that line between sweet and sharp, between funny and sad, between drama and melodrama. The first season I liked a lot more than the second, though; the second season is more uneven, wobbling around unsteadily between character arcs and motivations, and there’s a keen example of this at the end of the second season.
This will necessitate spoilers.
Small spoilers. Mild. I’ll give no details but… spoilers are spoilers.
So avoid if you gotta.
Last scene in the season finale involves a character leaving their phone behind, and on this phone is a voicemail we want them to hear, and then another character intervenes — they open the phone, listen to the voicemail, and erase it.
The character who left behind the phone is a teenager. Teenagers are maybe forgetful, but they’re also critically married to their phones (as are we proper adults), and this teenager in particular is sharp, savvy, and naturally suspicious of like, literally everyone. And in the first season we saw a character lose their phone and see the result of that. So, leaving a phone behind callously is strange. The character isn’t just stepping outside for a cigarette — they’re “walking into town.” At night. It’s a good distance. And they don’t take their phone.
Additional problems ensue when you realize you can’t just open someone’s phone, you have to know their passcode, but that’s somewhat more adjacent to the point I’m trying to make, which is:
The episode is very concerned about its PLOT and not very concerned about its CHARACTERS. It so badly wants us to feel this kind of (melo)dramatic tension that it does one of its own characters dirty — it sells out what we know of them, betraying who they are, for the purposes of a cheap, operatic thrill. Some won’t be rankled by this, though I was, and my wife was like WTF, too — it’s not that this choice was wrong, but I felt it. And I hate whenever I’m watching or reading something and one of the characters is suddenly acting very unlike themselves, and it feels like the storyteller is shaving off their square corners so they’ll fit into the circle hole socket that the plot requires. Which for me, isn’t ideal storytelling. It’s letting the frame be more than just a guide, but rather, an exoskeleton bolted to the narrative. It’s doubly annoying when this character blip could’ve been easily solved — often, you only need a few shifts to such a scene to still get your desired plot outcome while not simultaneously betraying the character.
So, to me, that’s the lesson — let my characters drive the story. And if there’s something I feel is really vital, plot-wise, then those plot bits must still be shaped like the character, and not force the characters to be shaped like the plot. Or something.
Who knows. Again, does any of this even matter? Is this just deck chairs on the Titanic? Maybe. My kid started fourth grade today (virtually) and it’s like, they want to teach him normal Fourth Grade things and a wild-eyed part of me wants to jump in, NO YOU NEED TO TEACH HIM HOW TO SURVIVE THE APOCALYPSE, WHO GIVES A SHINY FUCK ABOUT VERB TENSES WHEN HE NEEDS TO KNOW HOW TO SPEAR A MUTATED FIRE BOAR COMING OVER THE RIDGE FROM THE RUINS OF OLD SCRANTONIA. It’s hard to know what we need to know going forward, and what will matter. But I know stories still matter, and how we tell them matters, and letting our characters be themselves is a good way to demonstrate how to maybe also be ourselves off the page, too. As writers and as people. And as mutated fireboar hunters in the Year 2030.