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?


  1. I'm a hard reader and slow as well so I need it all. Right now I'm reading a story with wonderful characters but am wondering what the heck the plot is. I'm enjoying it because I like the characters but am lacking the "need to read more" because nothing much is happening. Normally by now I would have given up on the book and picked something else up but I'm too curious and determined to finish it and see if anything happens! I might try the red and blue markings you suggested, might be a fun thing to do!

    1. I hardly ever put a book down, and if the characters are interesting I'll always read on to see if anything interesting happens to them. When it doesn't I feel very disappointed.