Thursday, September 26, 2013

Plot to the Left of Me, Character to the Right...

Recently I've been looking at discussions on writing concerning plot-driven stories vs. character-driven stories as well as having some of my own with other writers. I thought I'd share my view on this topic.
There seems to be this divide among readers and writers when it comes to plot-driven or character-driven stories. You could also say it's the same divide between genre and literary stories, since genre stories tend to be driven by plot while literary stories tend to be driven by character.
What I don't understand is why a story can't have both a strong plot AND be populated with interesting characters we want to hear all about. In fact, both are NECESSARY in a story.
Think of the characters in a story as these impressive art masterpieces, like the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo. You know these works of art because you've learned about them and how famous they are. Now imagine these great works of art sitting in the middle of the desert somewhere, somewhere far away from civilization where no one can see them or experience them for themselves. No one can interact with them. They're not DOING anything out there but collecting desert sand. That's what character-driven stories are like. You know about these great people, but there's no interaction between you and them. You can't relate to them on a personal level. They don't want to come on an adventure with you.
Conversely, imagine this beautiful oasis in the middle of the same desert. Maybe those same art pieces are on prominent display in the desert somewhere,  in this wonderful resort by the lake, except this time you've never heard of them or seen them before. Now imagine you're in a car that's approaching the oasis, but you're driving so fast that you just blow right by the oasis. You're moving so fast you don't even know it's there. That's what plot-driven stories are like. The action never stops long enough for you to appreciate the characters that populate the story. You don't even notice their details. You really don't care who they are. They could be anyone, but they're not anyone you can really relate to either.
What each of these stories is missing is a sense of PACING. There needs to be a balance between the amount of info you dump on the characters in the story and the amount of action those characters are doing. I've heard other writers say every sentence in the story should either advance the plot or serve as character development. I'd like to add one more caveat to this. You need a good mix of sentences that do each of these things in your story.
So how do you achieve this? Here's a good rule of thumb. Pick any page at random in your story. Or do the same in a book that's already published. Read the page and make a red mark if something appears on that page that clearly identifies characteristics of the characters that populate it. Now reread the page and put a blue mark on it if some kind of action takes place. It could be something as simple as a character pacing back and forth in an empty room, but preferably the action is related to either the goal of the character(s), or some setback or conflict the character(s) is/are experiencing.
A good story should have both a red mark and a blue mark on just about every page. If it doesn't, and this is your manuscript, think about what you can add to the story to accomplish this.
Once you’ve achieved this, your story will break that divide between the plot- and character-driven story readers. It'll open your book to a wider audience. Create those works of art, make sure the readers slow down and appreciate them, and then race those readers across the desert.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you tend to go to one type of novel over the other when you read? When you write? Or do you enjoy that balance I speak of?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Waistband of the Blog is Expanding

That's right, readers. The blog is getting a little bigger. Time to loosen the belt a little bit. I've been meaning to put up some book reviews on my blog, and now I'm finally getting around to doing just that. I'm putting them in their own little section, entitled "George's Backlogged Book Reviews", because, well, I have a huge backlog of books I need to read, and I have a huge backlog of reviews I should get to. Prior to this, I was putting up book reviews on Goodreads, and you can see any of my old book reviews and ratings if you go here: So I'll see you all over there periodically to discuss some of the books I'm currently reading.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Boring" Character Background (Insert Sarcasm Here)

Recently I read some reviews of a book I'm reading. One of them described the book as Stephen King's The Stand but without all the boring character back stories. I've seen this complaint about The Stand before - about how the book would be so much better if S.K. had just cut out all this unnecessary background on the characters.

The Stand happens to be my favorite book, and one of the major reasons why I love it so much is BECAUSE of the character back stories.

Now, I could go into a whole argument describing my point by telling everyone that the hero's/heroine's journey is partly an internal journey of the main character(s), and without that internal journey, there really IS no hero's/heroine's journey, blah blah blah. Instead, I'm going to take another approach to convince people the importance of character and their stories.

Suppose you suddenly got the opportunity to go on an awesome overseas trip to Europe. (Suppose also you live in the USA, so said overseas trip would make sense to you.) What is the first thing you would do? Before you even pack? That's right, if you're like me (or most people), you'd ask your significant other if he/she wants to come with you. Or you'd call up kids, parents, family members, friends, people you know, people who would appreciate such a trip. People you can relate to. People who relate to you. People without whom the experience wouldn't quite be the same. You know once you go with these people you'll have the time of your life, because you can share the experience, bounce the things you see and experience off them, making it so much better.

Now imagine the same trip, but you go alone. Or maybe you go with a group of total strangers as part of a tour. What's the difference? Companionship. Camaraderie. Relationship. Someone to bounce your experiences off of. Someone who appreciates them just the way you do.

Think of a story like a trip. The story may take you places you've always wanted to go. Places you've never seen before. Exciting places. Who would you rather go with on that journey? A character you really don't know? Or someone who you've come to know as someone like you? Someone who would appreciate the journey with you. Someone you can experience things with.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree? Disagree? What are those stories where you've enjoyed going on the journey? What characters were those stories populated with?