Rebecca Petruck: Let the Main Character Drive the Bus

Rebecca Petruck

Rebecca Petruck

You know how “Show Don’t Tell” is both true and kind of meaningless these days? I think the same about “Start with Action.” That advice drives me crazy because it’s incomplete: “Start with an Action that Reveals the MC’s Character.”

Imagine if The Hunger Games opened with Katniss volunteering. It would be dramatic, and we’d think her brave for taking her sister’s place. But would we be invested in the decision? A lot of people are surprised when I lay out the actual opening of The Hunger Games:

  • Katniss wakes up alone—Prim isn’t there (motivating fear);
  • Katniss sneaks across the perimeter to hunt (not afraid to break what she considers senseless rules; demonstrates a skill);
  • talks with Gale (establishes rules of world; her focus on survival blinds her to his feelings);
  • stops by the market and to see the mayor’s daughter to trade (confidence in navigating her world);
  • prepares for the reaping (Katniss’ soft side revealed in her care for Prim);
  • at the reaping (Katniss’ view of the world).

hunger gamesLaid out like that, the scenes don’t sound very exciting do they? And, they take up twenty pages of space. Yet, the opening of The Hunger Games is deeply compelling because of the sense of dread hanging over every moment and because we are getting to know a fascinating and contrary character. On the surface, Suzanne Collins didn’t start with action that seems particularly interesting, but she started with the right action to reveal her MC’s character.

Which is why when I work with critique partners, the thing I often get most passionate about is plot. Plot is the action the MC takes to reach her external goal, and that action ultimately must reveal not only her true, internal goal but also her soul, the “Why” of everything she does. That’s a lot to ask of an action which is why a well-conceived plot is essential. I don’t care what happens next; I care how what happens next affects the MC.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron discusses the action-reaction-decision triad of effective scene-making, which I interpret as plot-character-character.

Characters in a truck! Rebecca and her parents.

Characters in a truck!
Rebecca and her parents.

Plot is the speeding bus your MC can’t get off. How she reacts to her situation and the things she decides to do because of it is what your story is about. In itself, plot is fairly passive—it’s a bus. The driver is the reason we care.

Once you know your MC well, certain decisions become inevitable, which means key elements of plot become inevitable, too. That doesn’t mean your plot becomes predictable. It’s that the logic that guides your MC’s decisions means certain actions must follow. Plot unveils that logic and reveals a compelling and unpredictable character. Often, because your MC’s worldview is skewed by some conditioning event, not only can’t the reader predict how the MC will react and what she will decide, but also the MC is frequently surprised, too. This cycle reveals the MC not only to the reader but to herself, and forces her to react and make more decisions that lead to the internal change she may not be aware she needs and actively resists.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and "plot cattle prods" while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and “plot cattle prods” while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

In that sense, don’t look at plot as “What Happens Next.” Look at plot as the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal her strengths, weaknesses, professed goals, and secret goals, often unacknowledged even to herself. Plot is what lays bare your MC, peeling back layer after layer of flesh until we finally glimpse the beating heart. I like the way Cron decribes this, “…the heart of the story doesn’t lie in what happens; it beats in what those events mean to the protagonist.”

What does this mean in the practical sense of putting words on the page? Try out your MC in a variety of scenarios, looking for actions that she will resist the most, that will draw the strongest reactions, and force the most difficult decisions. Dig past your first two, three, four ideas and see what happens when you get down to the fifth or sixth. Once you’ve collected a number of actions your MC will particularly detest, check out Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s an effective tool for organizing those actions into a plot. You may download a Beat Sheet HERE.

In short, seeking the answer to a question your characters want answered should lead them to the question they actually need answered. Seeking requires movement. Plot creates that movement and in doing so reveals your characters’ true selves.

Rebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, the L.A. Times, and Christian Science Monitor also have spotlighted the novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE.  Remember to follow her on Twitter  @RebeccaPetruck.

Rebecca is giving away a synopsis + 25p critique and follow-up phone call/Skype! All who comment on this post are eligible to win.

And check out the Exercise Book for a modified version of the Beat Sheet tailored for KidLit Summer School!

Rebecca will lead #KidlitSummerSchool at 9:00 pm EST tonight for the first #30mdare! You can read more about those at the bottom of this POST

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185 comments on “Rebecca Petruck: Let the Main Character Drive the Bus

  1. Rebecca: So many outstanding tips and suggestions to consider. The picture of you and your parents is too fun! Perhaps it is a 56 Chevy. Such a sweet ride! Thank you for the excellent post and the Beat Sheet! ~Suzy Leopold

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  2. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Wonderful post, Rebecca. I especially like what you wrote about how the MC should be surprised by his/her reaction to events (just as the reader is), and that leads to growth and change.

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  3. Dana Carey says:

    Excellent post! “Look at plot as the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal her strengths, weaknesses, professed goals, and secret goals, often unacknowledged even to herself. Plot is what lays bare your MC…” Wow! Thank you.

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  4. laurazarrin says:

    Thanks for this. I need to dig a little deeper with a current character and this post has me thinking 🙂

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  5. Dawn says:

    Thanks, Rebecca. Great tips about plot and digging past your ideas to answer questions even your MC is unaware need answering.

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  6. Carrie Brown says:

    OMG, wow! This is an amazing post! Thank you, Rebecca! I feel like I need to pull 40+ manuscripts out and do the Petruck analysis! 🙂

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  7. Anjali says:

    So much to think about in this post. Thank you.

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  8. Thanks for this post, Rebecca. I will learn to let go of my back-seat driver tendencies. 🙂

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  9. Thank you for tying together plot and character! I find it so frustrating when the two are treated like separate things. Also, wow, this giveaway is pretty spectacular!

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  10. Cattle prod, eh? Sounds like that has a connection with a cool new book that’s out. 😉

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  11. Mindy Alyse Weiss says:

    Thanks for your great post! I can’t wait to see where the beats fall in my novels. I love how you used the beginning of The Hunger Games as an example of starting with the right action to reveal the MC’s character. I think writers often end up making the opening action too extreme because we hear over and over again that we need to start with an exciting action–and during first page critiques, it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s the right action.

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  12. I’ll be re-reading these until I’m sure they have become second nature: “Start with an Action that Reveals the MC’s Character” and “…the heart of the story doesn’t lie in what happens; it beats in what those events mean to the protagonist.” Thank you!

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  13. barbara kupetz says:

    Thanks you, Rebecca. You have given me a lot to think about and many tips I’ll need to apply to that collection of mss that I thought were in pretty good shape. Hmmm . . . maybe they need a little more work.

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  14. Danielle says:

    A lot here to think about! I could read pages and pages more on this topic!

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  15. Rita says:

    Thanks for this informative post. Great analogy… MC as the driver of the bus (plot).

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  16. Val M says:

    Wow, what a terrific connection of action to character. And the review of the actual opening of The Hunger Games was a perfect example of how, as you say Rebecca, it’s how the action affects the MC that is vital to the story. Thank you.

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  17. Renee says:

    Thanks for the challenge!

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  18. miriam franklin says:

    This post was really helpful. I’m looking forward to reading your book!

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  19. “The driver is the reason we care.” Great way of putting it. You have offered so many excellent examples for how the protagonist and plot fit together to make the reader want more. Very good lesson. Thank you, Rebecca.

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  20. Great post! I love the statement about action revealing your character. Seems obvious, and yet it’s easy to let the storyline drag the character along. Thanks for the solid reminder to keep the MC in the driver’s seat!

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  21. The most powerful quote for me in this post is “Look at plot as the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal her strengths, weaknesses, professed goals, and secret goals, often unacknowledged even to herself.” Really making me re-look at one of my PBs in a different light. Thanks!

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  22. […] very helpful. If you ever have the chance to take a workshop from Rebecca, jump at it. More info here about Rebecca and her […]

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  23. Love the characters in a truck! Also really appreciate the reminders that it is not all about action but also about passion and how passion contributes to plot. Very useful for me right now.

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  24. Very insightful article. I was particularly struck by you’re final comment regarding how finding out what your character wants should lead you to what they actually need.

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  25. juliekrantz says:

    Reblogged this on julie krantz and commented:
    Great Article on the Importance of the Main Character in Fiction

    Like

  26. Alice Fulgione says:

    Wonderful post, Rebecca! I loved THE HUNGER GAMES example. I need to remind myself that what happens next should affect the MC in some way.

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  27. Kristen says:

    Excellent post 🙂 I found my way here from the BookEnds Literary site.

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  28. So glad to see you breaking down the opening to the Hunger Games. I saw an agent do this at a regional SCBWI event with a “Tell” rewritten version that really got me thinking, and have been wanting to consider this in more depth.

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  29. I love post that help me become a better critique partner. I will now consider the intros to my critique partners’ writing with a more attuned eye toward what specifically the action reveals about the MC. Thanks for the tip !

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  30. Diane Nizlek says:

    Rebecca, I like the idea of setting up your MC in a variety of scenarios, paying attention to the ones “she will resist the most, draw the strongest reactions, and force the most difficult decisions.” That sums up for me, what will make for a strong, compelling plot. Thanks for the enlightening post!

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  31. ritaborg says:

    i write picture books I wonder if it works for them too?

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  32. […] for getting into the writing groove. Look for posts NEXT WEEK from Jen Malone, John Claude Bemis, Rebecca Petruck, Kristine Asselin, and Tara Lazar! Their wisdom will pave the way for  you to get psyched and […]

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