What ‘Art of War’ Can Teach Us About Plot and Characterization

Thursday, July 22, 2010
By Brandy Dolce

Sun Tzu Art of Warby Brandy Dolce

It’s the motivator by which Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” remains a permanent fixture on my desk. I’ve employed his basic principles throughout my journalism career – in my news stories, advice column and magazine articles, as well as in the manipulation of certain repugnant individuals. And I continue to use them as I work toward the completion of my first YA manuscript.

Why? Because Sun Tzu was a master deceiver, a manipulator of pawns. He played on his enemies’ weaknesses, surprised them when they thought they couldn’t be misled, and offered them what they wanted only to snatch it away and entrap them. “Art of War” is a veritable gold mine for those, like myself, working to structure an exciting plot line. How? Because plot, like warfare, is the Tao of deception! Below are some of Sun Tzu’s battle principles as they pertain to the art of storytelling.

“Although you are capable, display incapability.”
Hello…Superman?! Ring a bell? Clark Kent appears as the dullest, wimpiest guy on the planet, but after he shimmied around in that phone booth he became, well…Superman!
Build an element of surprise into your characters, no matter how small. It’s intriguing! I love when characters stand up for themselves after being at the mercy of oppressors. (”Harry Potter” – He’s a boy wizard!) And I adore when the ugly duckling turns into the swan. (”Beauty and the Beast” – The Beast turns out to be a hot prince!)
Conversely, I go absolutely bonkers with glee when I think I have a character all figured out (He’s bad, I know it!) only to discover he’s had good intentions all along! (”The Hunt for Red October” – Marko Ramius wants to defect!) The Russian nuclear sub captain puts forth the pretense that he’s capable of being a threat to the United States, which he is. But then he displays a form of incapabilityonce it becomes apparent he wants to defect. After all, Ramius doesn’t want to light up the country to which he’s attempting to escape.

“When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity.”
Think “First Knight!” Remember the point in the story when King Arthur (Sean Connery), Lancelot (Richard Gere) and Guinevere (pretty lady with curly hair whose name escapes me. Oh! Julia Ormond!) ride up to Leonesse after it’s been attacked by Malagant’s army? They desperately want to swoop in and rescue whatever villagers remain. But Arthur knows such a rush to action will be what Malagant expects and would make Arthur’s army vulnerable to attack.
Instead, the good guys make camp outside Leonesse. Thinking Arthur’s men are sleeping, Malagant’s cronies sneak in for the kill only to be taken by surprise as the Knights of the Round Table come charging at them from the forest beyond. Surprise! Arthur’s army “feigned inactivity” though they planned to take action all along.

“When your objective is nearby, make it appear distant; when distant, create the illusion of being nearby.”
All he has to do is toss the ring into the fires of Mount Doom, but what if Frodo falls under the ring’s addictive power? Even worse, what if he catches Smeagol’s green, balding disease and employs the two-hair comb-over?
Keep your readers guessing. Will your characters reach their goal? If so, how?
A plot is like a soccer game. Every time you think your team’s going to score, an opposing player kicks the ball right out from under them and waaaay down the field. Keep the reader guessing how your characters will score.
Take Dorothy, for example. All she has to do is get the Witch of the West’s broom. Yeah, right. We know what chaos ensues. But Dorothy completes her task and the way home looks to be in reach.
But then the not-so-great-and-powerful Oz says, A) I’m not an all-powerful wizard like David Blaine and, B) But jump in my crappy balloon (sans GPS) and hopefully I’ll get you to Kansas.
Of course, the Wiz ends up floating away without her as she loses her grip on an unruly Toto and she runs after him. Get it? So near, yet so far!

Ultimately, Sun Tzu’s battle tactics offer ways to keep a story fresh with conflicts and resolutions. Use these principles to spice up a stagnant plot, or to get the lightning cracking in your brainstorm for a new book. The uses are infinite. So grab a copy of “Art of War” and keep it close by, for his are the ways military strategists – and bestselling authors – are victorious. At worst, you’ll know how to lay siege to your next door neighbor.

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