The Three Branches Of Writing

As a storyteller/writer, what is most important: character, setting, or plot?  My view is character is the most important because part of the reason you read (or in my case write) is to explore these characters and hang out with them for a few hours at a time.  However, I also think storytelling is like the US Government and its three branches:  None of it works if any one part is ignored.

One of my favorite shows in television ever is the reboot of Battlestar Galactica.  Ronald D. Moore took a hokey late-70s television science fiction franchise and imbued it with intelligence and depth for a post 9/11 world.  The finales of seasons 2 and 3 are among my favorite episodes of television ever.  Then came season 4 and the end of the show.

As much as I love the show and I love Moore’s approach to television writing (his podcasts for the show truly helped me become a better writer) where the characters are what matter most, I think he fell too in love with his characters and let them linger too long without giving some forward momentum to the plot.  The end of the show seemed rushed because he and his writers spent so much time letting the characters dictate the beginning of the final season, they had to shove a bunch of plot into the last four episodes leaving it rather muddled.  I didn’t dislike where we ended up, but I thought it could have been handled better.

Back to the analogy for a moment.  In the three branches of storytelling, character and setting are the executive and legislative branches.  They work hand in hand on a day to day basis and one’s importance is dependent upon the other to an extent.  Now, the plot is the judicial branch.  You know it’s important, but sometimes it gets lost among the more sexy branches until it’s too late.

Sometimes you get so caught up in creating all these perfectly detailed characters and their perfectly detailed settings that you forget that part of storytelling is telling a story and plot is the engine of the story.  (Yet another metaphor)

Everyone has their own preference for which of the three branches is most important.  Some prefer plot driven stories.  They like watching the pieces all fall into place.  Others prefer to get lost in a world and are into settings driven stories.  Some, like me, want to hang out with characters and explore their lives.

The concentration on one branch at the expense of the others is where bad fiction, particularly genre fiction, is born.  Bad science fiction and historical fiction has wonderfully detailed settings with beautifully rendered descriptions of where the most two dimensional and wooden characters live.  Bad mysteries, spy-thrillers, and romances have these intricate plots that work like Swiss pocket watches that take place in a world unrecognizable to most humans.  Maybe the worst of all is the navel gazing pretentiousness of a purely character driven piece of literary fiction where the characters don’t actually do anything worth writing about, but dammit they are interesting people.

The funny thing is, a writer who is really, really, really, really skilled can concentrate on one of these branches in a story at the expense of the others and still write a compelling and interesting story.  I have read great short stories that are nothing but following one person around during the day when nothing interesting happens and been completely fascinated by everything described.  However, most writers are nowhere near that skilled, including this one.

Neither one is the right way to read or write a story.  As a writer, however, you need to know which you prefer and figure out a way to honor the branch you love most while not scrimping on the other parts.  You have to develop the understanding that all the branches are equally important and the ability to use each of the branches to make your story complete.

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