Turning Passive Plots into Active Plots
The sentence, in which the performer of the action is of negligible importance. The character, who waits for things to happen to them. The plot, that is built around reaction rather than action. They all have one very important thing in common: they are passive. Agentless. And capital B-O-R-I-N-G. I mean sure, passive can translate to mega drama, but only when it’s used as a counterpoint to an overwhelmingly active narrative—not as the basis for your fundamentals.
And yet, it is ridiculously easy to fall into using passive plots, passive heroes, and passive turns of phrase. Active plots, by contrast, tend to come from the heroes striving to do something, rather than striving to stop (or not do) something. For example, the one ring is essential to making The Lord of the Rings active: without it, the heroes have no hope, no plan, no active thing they can accomplish to stop Sauron from gaining power. Nothing to strive toward, only something relatively intangible to strive against. The one ring transforms the rather reactive and passive heroic action into something active, idealistic, and time-sensitive. It gives it focus and a guiding arc that the heroes can (and sometimes do) fail to meet. It gives it drama.
And it has become one of the standards of the genre. Since then, any number of ringlike devices have been instituted in countless fantasy stories down the years: we must interrupt the ritual, we must defend the door/chains/weapon; we must get the seven pieces of the magical muffin and use it to stop the great Muffinater from covering the world in gooey muffin streusel. And those methods do work; that ring substitute takes a passive plot and makes it active. But it’s still hard to pull off without feeling too mechanical. Here are just a few ways active arcs go astray, along with how to bring them back into fold.
My Plot Is a Mystery
The Set-Up: You know this plot. Everyone’s read one, and most of us have written one. It’s when the characters know there is some evil thing they have to stop, and they know they have to defeat it, but they don’t know how to defeat it, or really, how to even go about figuring out how to defeat it. This starts out with a compelling idea—not every Evil should come equipped with a “Press X to Delete” button, and letting the characters uncover what they need to do to stop the Big Bag is both more realistic and packed with plotastic promise.
Where it Goes Wrong: This kind of plot can suffer from an overdose of mystery. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good mystery: but when you have so much mystery that you lose sight of the focus and guiding arc? You might want to back off a hair. I mean, the thing about the quest to destroy the ring is that it is a physical objective that, while seemingly impossible at the outset, is something that the reader can easily conceptualize achieving. And that stern objective puts every setback they suffer, and every loop for which the darkside throws them, in perspective. It gives meaning to the various obstacles they encounter, and to the places they travel. With that object shrouded in mystery, all you have is an ominous bad thing, with a wish to stop the ominous bad thing, but no idea if it’s possible, of what success would look like, or really, what the heroes are doing other than having the overinflated opinion of themselves such that, when going up against the biggest of bads that ever badded, they can “figure it out once they get there.”
The Fix: The fix is really pretty simple: give the hero a focus and a set of expectations the reader can measure their success against. Both of these can be wrong—the hero can think they know what to do, and he can be wrong—or these could be but the first step in actively figuring out what the ultimate solution is. But by providing a focus and a guiding arc to back up your mystery, you up the tension and give purpose to otherwise Random-Seeming Encounters.
My Story is a Wonderland
The Set-up: There are many reasons people love reading fantasy. One of them is the lure of exploring a rich fantastical world, with centuries upon centuries of mythical history overlapping to create a world ripe for exploring. And people get really into this world-building—they create intricate magic systems, whole fallen civilizations with forgotten artifacts and lore, and a host of clever creatures and breathtaking landscapes the writer just can’t wait to show off. And that’s awesome!
Where it Goes Wrong: Wonderlands can end up suffering from movement masquerading as action: just because the scenery changed, just because the heroes met some elves with horns, or ran across a desert, that doesn’t mean the plot is active. It doesn’t make it exciting. It doesn’t give the events importance, relevance, or resonance. It’s just putting on a shiny display in the hopes that it will distract from the rather reactive, passive plot.
The Cure: I love—and I mean love—a well-drawn world. I want to read about a world so lush and innovative that I’ll set the book down to daydream more about my favorite parts before moving on to the next bit. But just because I’ve fallen in love with a world, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better if the setting stayed setting, rather than trying to pretend it’s a plot. The Lord of the Rings also had a well-drawn world that it walked us through, but that isn’t what made it exciting. What makes new settings and characters exciting is when they come into conflict with the hero—when they impact the character’s direction, forcing them to deviate from the expected arc. It’s when they complicate things, or make things go wrong. And it’s when they reflect unseen aspects of the hero, bringing them to light. So do create that beautiful world—just make sure that the character’s goals are clear, and that the world serves the needs of the character, not the other way around.
Exciting Things Happening to Boring People
The Set-up: One of the most common pieces of advice I hear is to push your characters to the breaking point, so they have no choice but to act. And at its heart, it is good, solid advice. I’m a huge advocate of pushing character’s buttons, and doing all kinds of horrible things to them to make them more interesting.
Where it Goes Wrong: The problem is, so often, heroes simply become the recipients of super interesting things—while not actually actively pursuing or doing anything themselves. They are the chosen one (passive), evil comes and drives them out of their home (passive), they run from place to place while pursued by evil (passive). More and more horrible things happen to try to force the hero to action, but the hero, obstinately, refuses to take any original action and maintains a strictly reactive stance on the plot, evil, and everything.
The Cure: This story can totally work—if it’s the story of the passive hero who learns that they must be active in the pursuit of their goals, or some other external-reflecting-internal arc. Or if it’s comical. But otherwise, this kind of plot can feel a trifle mechanical, and the hero, empty. Like some kind of un-character—impossible to understand or identify with, for their sheer lack of distinguishable desires. The way to fix this is to give that character some goals, and then give them a plan of attack. Make them active in the pursuit of their own destiny, even—especially—if it means making mistakes that make accomplishing those goals harder. Still have things happen that they must react to, but intermix with them doing things themselves, on their own impetus.
Remember: almost any story can be active, even if at its heart, it seems passive. It really all comes down to having characters who take action and feel like they know what to do, even if they don’t. And, of course, even passive plots can work, in the right hands. They’re just a whole lot trickier.