Agency Failures in Plotting

Raymond Chandler once wrote of plotting, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Like most writing advice, this is useful to a point. When someone gives the writing advice of “kill your darlings,” the point is not to cut all the things you like about your story; it’s to cut the things you’re hanging onto because you like them but that don’t actually fit coherently in this particular story. When they advise, “write every day,” the point is (or should be, sigh, that’s another blog) to commit to making structural changes in your life that enable you to write consistently, not that if you don’t work on stories every day that you’re not a Real Writer.

But every time NaNoWriMo rolls around, I see upticks of people who have interpreted Chandler’s Law as a mandate to just keep throwing exciting things at the page until you have enough words to call it a story, or until you get through the part where you didn’t know what happened and then you’ll find yourself at the real story, which is… generally not how stories work.

A Twitter discussion last week about plotting (PS Elizabeth Bear is very smart about stories and has a substack newsletter you can follow) got me wanting to expand on how I think misunderstandings of this axiom can create problems in the plot rather than solving them.

The most common failure mode of plotting I read in fantasy is actually a failure of character agency.

(Requisite caveats before I get going here that I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who vastly prefers character-driven to plot-driven stories, an axis which is in some sense an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction but one that can nevertheless be useful for analysis. YMMV. As with all writing commentary, if my approach on this subject isn’t useful to you, discard it; no advice is universal. Onwards!)

Here’s why plotting can actually indicate an agency problem: a plot is not just “things that happen.” A quick Google search gives the definition of plot as “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.”

There are two key phrases here. The first is “the main events,” which seems self-explanatory. The more important one is “an interrelated sequence.”

Random events are not a plot. If the things that happen don’t have story resonance, the story is unsatisfying: nothing feels like it matters, because nothing does matter when it’s not meaningfully related to everything else.

The most common way I see this failure mode of Chandler’s Law play out in stories is when characters are just reacting. An explosion comes through the window, so then they have to escape! But then the escape to a place where a monster is waiting for them, so they have to run again! Then the nearest hideaway just happens to be the villain’s lair, where they have to perform Some Filler Caper to get inside but then conveniently stumble upon a villainous intent monologue?? And so on.

There are ways to make this work—almost anything can work in the right circumstances—but the question the author has to be able to answer is why. Why did the villain cause an explosion, if lacking that explosion the main character wouldn’t have acted? Why did they choose to go to the place with the monster? Now that they know the villain’s raison d’etre, what are they going to do about it besides wait for the next explosion?

So, there are two principles at play here. The first is that, protagonist or antagonist or side character, characters should do things for reasons that make sense given the knowledge they have.

If the villain had reason to believe the protagonist was already working against them and so was trying to take them out, this may be a good reason for the explosion. But just having an explosion because the author needs to get the character moving doesn’t work without narrative reasoning. (Nothing wrong with writing the explosion first to facilitate making words happen and then coming up with the reasoning afterward! But the reasoning still has to exist and make sense.)

Corollary: the narrative should make us aware of that reasoning.

If our main character is like, oh shit the villain probably believes I’m working against them even though I want nothing to do with this because of that thing they saw in my office!, cool. It can even work retroactively (protagonist: I wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t exploded my house! antagonist: I didn’t know you were innocent then, but you certainly aren’t now!).

What doesn’t work: Our protagonist going, gosh, I wonder what we should do now? Hmm. Hmmmmm. Oh hey look, the plot has exploded through my window, even though this would not make any sense given what we eventually learn of the villain’s goals!

Which brings me to the second principle, which is: reacting isn’t enough if it doesn’t eventually result in action.

There is a separate but related discussion to be had about what agency even is in storytelling. There are ways to write passive protagonists, or protagonists whose choices are so circumscribed by their environments that so is their ability to act (for an excellent example of the latter, read Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri).

But if the plot is always having to come through the window explosively at the protagonist to get them to do something, and once that impetus is done they’re always idly waiting for the next impetus, it’s not the character driving the story.

It’s easy for me to get bored by this kind of narrative, because it’s not the point-of-view characters making it happen. That level of disconnection from choices creating effects with narrative relevance leaves me wondering why this story matters. Why are we reading this version of events, from this perspective?

An example I love to hold up when talking about with how agency works is The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison aka Sarah Monette. This is in part because the protagonist doesn’t for the most part take the physical actions people often associate with fantasy—he’s not a fighter or a wizard. So what actions does he take? Being entirely trapped within a political framework, it’s the conversations and how he manages them, the people he chooses to reach out to—or reject—and why, that make this story go. The people he uplifts, that he focuses on building bridges (literally and figuratively!)—this is what makes the story work. He does react to events that come at him from outside, but he doesn’t just react: even while reacting, he is always making choices toward being the person he wants to be, figuring out whether it is possible and how to accomplish his goals.

Here’s another way to look at it: Chandler’s Law is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with an explosion coming through the window and the characters having to escape. But how they escape should matter. It should tell us something about who the character is, and not just what they can do, but they will and won’t do. That explosion should also affect what they decide to do next—and begin doing!—rather than just waiting for another explosion to show up.

It’s not enough to have a man come through the door with a gun to make your plot happen. The man has to be relevant, and so does what the protagonist does about the situation.

Relevant to what? How do you make the plot matter? That’s where we get back to basics.

What’s the core of the story you’re trying to tell?

Is it an action-adventure coming-of-age story, where our protagonist learns their own power? Or is it an action-adventure where our protagonist ultimately learns they’re “powerless to amend a broken world” (many thanks to GGK for that phrase) and becomes an antihero? Or a spy caper full of daring adventures where the real friends are the ones we make along the way, including our enemy-to-ally who came through the door with a gun? Or is it a political romance, and the enemy with a gun becomes enemy-to-lover?

You’ve got options. My choice always comes back to character, because the character development I want my protagonist to have dictates how the story goes. But you can equally well make these decisions based on what actions thematically serve the world-building idea you’re exploring or that develop the cool magic you want to explode at the end. The man coming through the door with a gun isn’t what makes the story; it’s how that fits.

So it behooves you to ask, why this thing, and not something else? “Because it’s cool” is a good starting reason, but only if it can be made to matter to the story you’re trying to tell.

Why is your protagonist the protagonist, and not someone else?

(Someday I would like to read an orphan farmboy protagonist who gets to be the main character because his unique skill at cultivating rare turnip varieties is critical to saving the world and not because he is The Chosen One. But I digress.)

What can the protagonist do, and what will they do, that no one else will?

If your protagonist is reluctant to do protagonist things, why did you choose them? What would make them actually take action—by which I mean, make choices that affect the narrative—on their own initiative? Because they’ll need to, for the story to be satisfying.

A plot is not just events that occur; it’s a sequence of interrelated events. And a story with point-of-view characters who only react to events without making choices that affect them is a story with agency problems. Because while character and plot may be two different things, if they’re not working together, the story may not be working as intended, either.

For more on how I actually use character to create plot that does tie in, continue on to the next post!

black cat and orange cat curled on opposite sides of a coffee table which divides a sunbeam
protagonist and antagonist making interrelated choices

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