Turning Passive Plots into Active Plots

WritersdontcryConfrontationThe 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.

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Comments (3)

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Posted by: linda fred | Tuesday January 8, 2013 at 12:25 PM

James: Thank you! :) Glad you found it useful.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday December 24, 2012 at 6:18 PM

Good post with great advice. There is nothing more frustrating than reading a boring narrative with a too passive protagonist.

Posted by: James Holder | Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 5:24 AM

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