The full title of this section is: Enhancing the Interaction of Character and Plot. It’s a shortish section that builds on the idea of the inevitability of retrospect, but I encourage you to focus here on the idea of interaction.
Plot and character can certainly be talked about as separate elements, but it is through their interaction that an author’s intended effects are achieved. To treat character and plot as separate elements is to see them as components in the alloy critics and academics call story. Treating plot and character as water and seed sees them as essential components giving life to the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience. It is that experience — that life — that we are after when we write.
For Hills the heart of the matter is less philosophical than it is practical: telling good stories is a balancing act. On the one hand you want a story to have a feeling of inevitability when it’s finished, but along the way you want characterization and plot to feel open and malleable, as if anything might happen.
Successfully combining these apparently contradictory effects constitutes one of the demonstrable excellences of successful fiction.
It’s a high bar to be sure, but in my own experience the main reason people fail to meet it is that they don’t know how to try. The answer is that a reader’s feeling of uncertainty and growing sense of inevitability are both the inevitable result of plot and character interaction, and anything that enhances that interaction will by definition help achieve that goal.
While Hills is taking about literary fiction for the most part, what he’s saying applies to storytelling in all mediums. Voluntarily choosing to embrace an imbalance between character and plot, even if that choice is assumed by conventions of the genre or medium you work in, is still a choice, and a bad one. You can aspire to more, and obviously I think you should.
Fortunately Hills is not simply sight-seeing. He’s prepared to improve interaction between plot and character through the use of specific techniques, and he delivers.
Next up: Techniques of Foreshadowing.
— Mark Barrett