How to build a complex plot based on a simple message (Part 2)

Part 2: Choose your direction

Good morning again, fellow plotters! This is a continuation of the plotting series I started last week.

According to 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias, there are only two original stories – internal and external. The internal plot is a story where the main character either is or isn’t changed by the end of the story. The external plot is a story where the internal condition of the character doesn’t change at all, where the character simply experiences something that happens around him—like the world changes.

Internal. External. Those are the two original plots. But the framework surrounding them and the filters through which we view these two plots vary intensely.


Lord of the Rings vs. Indiana Jones

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is changed internally as a person as a result of his QUEST. But Indiana Jones as a character rarely changes by the end of his ADVENTURES.

According to Tobias’s book, a QUEST is an INTERNAL story; an ADVENTURE is an EXTERNAL story.

Once you identify your message, you need to decide how you’re going to portray it. For this series on plotting a complex novel starting with a simple idea, we’re using “Stealing is wrong” as our message. So how is the best way to portray that message?

If we choose an external direction, the story would be about a character who steals something and ends up in trouble because of it, but when the story ends he is still a thief.

If we choose an internal direction, the story would be about a character who steals something and ends up in trouble because of it, and learns the value of not taking the things that don’t belong to him.

The framework and setting and character around both of those options provides myriad choices of how to present the story itself. But internal or external is the first choice you have to make. Because if you choose one, you’re going to narrow your other choices down a bit.

For example, if we chose external, a thief-type character who doesn’t learn from his mistakes is going to be more of a scoundrel. If we use a thief-type character who tries to improve himself, he’ll be more of a hero. The internal/external choice is essential.

It’s the difference between Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow and Cowboys and Aliens Woodrow Dollarhyde.

Jack Sparrow doesn’t change at all. He is part of an externally driven story where he is given opportunity after opportunity to allow his circumstances to change him – but he never changes. Even after four movies, he still proudly claims that “it’s a pirate’s life for me.” If Jack Sparrow ever changed, I think the movie franchise would be over.

But that’s not the case for Colonel Woodrow Dollarhyde in Cowboys and Aliens. He starts out at the beginning as a cruel, vindictive old soldier (Harrison Ford does a great job, by the way), but by the end of the movie after all of the troubles they go through, he has become a respectful, pleasant sort of person interested in investing in other people.

A character with an opposite arc would be Anakin Skywalker, otherwise known as Darth Vader. He started off good but made choices that changed him into a villain. Granted, Anakin Skywalker is one of those characters who comes full circle, but people reading the story don’t have to know that.

Readers love all three of these characters (sometimes in extreme ways as evidenced by the number of Darth Vader costumes you can see at any sort of convention). But the choice of internal versus external will vastly affect the type of character you choose for your protagonist.

I like rebels. So for this example plot, we’re going to go with an externally directed story where the main character doesn’t change who he is.

Message: Stealing is wrong.
Direction: External.

In Part 3, we will discuss how to choose your genre, which is where the fun starts.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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