Monday, March 29, 2010

Flawed Plotting: the Secrets of National Treasure by Susan May Warren

Happy Manuscript Monday everyone. Susan's back with some craft focus on how characterization affects plotting. Please welcome her back to Seriously Write as she continues her fantastic series.

Craft Tips and Techniques from Today’s Blockbusters Series
Flawed Plotting: The Secrets of National Treasure
by Susan May Warren

When you’re plotting a book, think about the character flaws . . .

When I plot a book, I always start with a hero’s greatest dreams and greatest fears. Getting to the bottom of what my character dreads the most is a great way to develop the ultimate black moment.

But it’s not the only way. What if, in fact, you started with a character’s greatest FLAWS…and wrapped the black moment and the entire plot around your Character’s foibles? This is exactly the kind of plotting technique used in one of my favorite series of movies – National Treasure. And most specifically, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

Benjamin Gates. National Hero. Treasure Hunter, Historian and adventurer. He’s a guy with a long family history, and a firm belief in the secrets of our country. But Benjamin has a few flaws.

First, he has an overabundance of family honor. It’s a classic case of “Pride goeth before the fall.” Not saying that a person shouldn’t have pride in one’s family, but Ben’s so convinced of his family’s honor that he’s certain his great grandfather could never have planned the assassination of President Lincoln. This family pride conspires to drive him into proving the innocence of his family name. Like he says to his father, “We’re crazy, but we’re not liars.”

But Ben is also convinced that his always right, and believes that no one can solve the case but him. This flaw, at the onset of the movie, has driven his girlfriend crazy and caused him to be kicked out of the house. Of course, he needs her security pass to examine some evidence, so he breaks into her house. And then, when caught, he convinces her to let him examine the diary page that convicted his great grandfather of plotting the assassination, because of course, he can’t trust her (or anyone) to do it but himself. Because, they might miss a vital clue.

Of course, he’s….right.

Which leads to a further flaw used to plot the story. Benjamin Gates is highly suspicious of everything – which means he’s not going to settle for the obvious. He believes in the myths and the conspiracy theories which drive him to probe deeper into every mystery, and it’s this flaw that uncovers the cipher on the back of the diary page which leads to the next clue.

Benjamin Gates is also under the delusion that he can figure out a way to accomplish just about anything. Like break into the Queens’ Office in Buckingham Palace, or the Oval Office in the White house.

And eventually kidnap the president of the United States.

“Of course someone is after the treasure – it’s the axiom of treasure hunting.” (Thank you Riley, that was my point exactly). All these flaws work together to embroil his family and friends in the search for truth, and they end up, yes, discovering the City of Gold, but at nearly the cost of their lives. The flaws all converge into a final, fatal flaw – a belief that the ends justify the means. That it’s okay to risk life and limb and reputation and love for pride and family honor. And, well, money. The dark moment of truth: it’s not worth it if everyone you love dies, is it?

When you’re plotting a book, think about the character flaws. What kind of issues does your character deal with, and how can they lead him from one bad (or good?) action to the next? How can they converge to bring about the dark moment, and hopefully, an epiphany?

Thankfully, Gates is learning. Like, realizing that he can’t always assume he’s right. And that his stubbornness can lead to disaster. And hopefully, (but probably not, because we need a National Treasure 3) that the ends DON’T justify the means.

Of course, despite his flaws, Gates, has one character strength that balances out all his flaws, all his foibles. A noble belief that truth will win the day, and lead to the treasure.

Yeah, me too.

Susan May Warren is the founder of My Book Therapy, a boutique fiction editing service for writers, and runs A Writer’s Blog. See her Web site to learn more about her award-winning fiction.

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