‘Character precedes action.’
So says Lajos Egri in his Art of Dramatic Writing, a book which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. It is centered around Premise, Character and Conflict (in that order). (I promise I won’t get too side-tracked talking about the wayward text formatting, though half-finished sentences which start up again after a yawn of white space brings out the word nerd pathology in me.)
So there I am reading Egri, expounding the virtues of character to anyone who will listen, and then I go and pick up Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. And, lo and behold, Snyder tells me that character isn’t the juice after all.
Character serves a good log line, he says. And, if I’m not mistaken, a log-line is all about, well, premise.
To top it off, I saw an old (like, 1960s old) interview with English novelist Elizabeth Barrett, who said her characters came about through a process of exploring various possible responses to a conflict situation. So now we’re talking about conflict preceding character, which may or may not precede premise.
What’s a writer to do?
Not think too hard, for one. For some people story starts with character, and for others with premise, or conflict. The twain shall meet, of course, but certainly in the art of fiction it seems to be a matter of preference.
Snyder, who was a screenwriter, argues that screenwriting Hollywood-style is quantifiable. He has a formula, down to the page number. ‘Mid-point on page 55 or all is lost’, that kind of thing. And while some might scoff at this, I find it reassuring. But then again, I suspect some of us have a penchant for structure, in our lives as well as on the page, because we know we become highly creative when we have to work within boundaries. Let’s face it: boundaries are asking for conflict. Their very existence provokes a desire to push, to try it on. And as soon as you have conflict: Bingo. You have a perfect environment for a story.
At some point as a writer you will have to ask ‘what’s the story about?’, but perhaps that’s as far as it needs to go. When it comes to the genesis of a story, it might just be a matter of the writer’s pathology.