Is your Book Character-Driven or Plot-Driven?

First of all, what does character-driven and plot-driven mean?!

Illustration of a confused person looking at different options to represent the choice between character-driven and plot-driven stories
What do character-driven and plot-driven mean?

Plot-driven

In a plot-driven story, the action is the focus of the writing, not the character. The character tends to be static; there is little character development. Plot-driven stories are often genres like horror, action, science fiction. An example of a plot-driven story is Dan Brown’s mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code. The story focuses not on the development of protagonist Robert Langdon or focus character Sophie Neveu but on their search for clues in an attempt to solve a mystery.

Character-driven

Character-driven stories focus on the character, the character’s emotional depth and the transformation the character experiences. A famous example of a character-driven story is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The central characters, children Scout and Jem Finch, develop an awareness of racism and its implications when their lawyer father Atticus defends Tom Robinson. They also ‘grow up’ (develop) in their understanding of their neighbour Boo Radley when he ultimately saves them from the story’s villain.

NY Book Editors  explain it like this: ‘Whereas plot-driven stories focus on a set of choices that a character must make, a character-driven story focuses on how the character arrives at a particular choice. The plot in a character-driven story is usually simple and often hyper-focused on the internal or interpersonal struggle of the character(s).’

Do you write character-driven or plot-driven stories?

As writers, our style naturally tends towards either character-driven or plot-driven stories. What’s important is to get the balance right – because both plot and character are necessary!

This means becoming aware of how we approach storytelling – that is, whether we write character-driven or plot-driven stories – and then consciously making a choice to keep the balance right between character and plot.

Problems of imbalance

Why is it necessary to have a balance between character and plot? Most of us write because we love writing. Beyond that, we write so that readers will want to read our books. We’re writing for an audience, ultimately, and good storytelling engages our audience through to the end of the story. This means we need to find the happy balance between character and plot.

Losing the plot

Stories that focus so much on character that they ‘lose the plot’ risk making their characters yawningly boring. A character may be appealing, intelligent and good-looking but if they are given no task to fulfil in the story – no conflict they have to face, so no growth and no development – then there’s unlikely to be great reader engagement with the story. 

Too much focus on plot

A fast-paced page-turner with heaps of action and heart-stopping scenes that leave the reader breathless, but that star one-dimensional characters, will be unsatisfying to the reader. One-dimensional means the characters lack depth, they do not learn or grow – they are boring.

How to nail it

If you’re struggling with getting the balance between character and plot right, these ideas may help:

Analyse movies

When you’re watching a movie, follow it more closely than you might usually and work out whether it’s character-driven or plot-driven.

Read

Read excellent books written by excellent writers. You can’t go wrong with the classics of worldwide literature, and if you’re unsure, a quick Google search will reveal them. Your local librarians are a good source of knowledge on first-rate writers and books.

A couple of examples of books where the author got the balance between character and plot just right are:

Do a writing exercise

Challenge yourself to come up with an interesting situation asking a ‘what-if’ question, like Stephen King suggests (see below). Think up your main character, and then write a scene or a couple of pages. You never know; from these humble beginnings an award-winning story may be born!

Take courses

Many writers’ centres all over the English-speaking world now offer online courses in many aspects of creative writing. Search online to see what’s on offer for 2019.

What Stephen King says

Let’s finish this discussion with what storytelling master Stephen King says in his book On Writing: A memoir of the craft. He says that he distrusts plot, putting forward two valid reasons: ‘… our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning’. He also believes that ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. What is needed is a strong situation. He proposes that the ‘most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question’, and gives examples of his own books: ‘What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot). What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)’ (© 2000 Stephen King).

Acknowledgements

Australian Writers’ Centre, Character-driven versus plot-driven stories, 2014.
https://www.writerscentre.com.au/blog/character-driven-versus-plot-driven-stories/. Accessed 14 Jan 2019

Jennifer Kenning, How to be your own Script Doctor, 2006, the Continuum International Publishing Group, New York. Page 83: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=WT4VZC4lKiQC&pg=PA83&lpg=PA83&dq=Character+driven+vs+plot+driven+stories&source=bl&ots=biInlzdkNQ&sig=MeS9yKpo4drzEEIcC0_JBKBRws4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFtpTCvuzfAhUFKo8KHcQtA084lgEQ6AEwAHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Character%20driven%20vs%20plot%20driven%20stories&f=false. Accessed 14 Jan 2019

Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft, 2000, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

NY Book Editors, Character-Driven Vs. Plot Driven: Which Is Best, nd.
https://nybookeditors.com/2017/02/character-driven-vs-plot-driven-best/. Accessed 14 Jan 2019

The Guardian, How to Write, 2000. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/oct/01/stephenking.sciencefictionfantasyandhorror. Accessed 15 Jan 2019.


Gail Tagarro, Accredited Editor (AE)


Contact me to have a chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may think you need a manuscript appraisal for further development. Ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!


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WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

Do you live on the Gold Coast, Brisbane or northern New South Wales? Or visiting the Gold Coast in March? Then I invite you to join my March writers’ workshop, LET’S JUST WRITE!

What better way to spend a few hours on a Saturday, hanging out with like-minded people and writing? LET’S JUST WRITE! includes a series of fun, guided writing exercises to flex your writer’s muscles and let your creativity fly, in a fun and supportive environment

Check out the details on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/events/2231757230478839/

Creative Writing Ideas for Children and Teenagers

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Creative writing ideas for children and teenagers

  • How do writers write?
  • How do you write?
  • Where do creative writing ideas come from? 

Creative kids are everywhere. I’m always astonished at the sophistication of some young people’s writing. You can find a lot of good writing by young writers on the social media sites like Instagram and Facebook.

Do you like to write?

Even if you think you don’t like writing, or that you don’t write, think about this: do you write emails? Text messages? School work? Do you post on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest? Do you write a blog? Without even realising it, you are writing all the time.

We all write even if we think we don’t.

So how do writers write? and where do their ideas come from?

I’m going to show you rather than tell you. ‘Showing’ rather than ‘telling’ is also a technique in writing that you may have heard about. But more on that in another blog …

The example that follows shows just how important it is to READ and to use WORDS, in our writing and in our speaking. Although I’ve used this example in a previous blog, it’s worth repeating.

  • In 1974, there were 475,000 words in common use in the English language
  • That had gone down to 215,000 commonly used words by 1995
  • In 2006, it was believed to have reduced further to 90,000 words

What does this mean? The people who write dictionaries use the words that are in common use, i.e. the words that most people know and understand. That means that the less common words – words that actually make our language richer – are being left out. That means they might eventually be forgotten. How can we make a difference and help to reverse this trend? By reading a lot and using a richer vocabulary. By using the dictionary to look up words we don’t know. Everyone needs to use a dictionary throughout their life. I am a professional writer and editor, yet I use a dictionary every day, to check on spellings and the correct use of words.

And this might sound strange, but the OLDER the dictionary – especially a very good one like the Oxford dictionary – the better. Why do you think that might be? One reason is that the older the dictionary, the more of these ‘lost’ words you can find.

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Use a good dictionary and a thesaurus

 How

How do you write?

When

When do you write? What time of the day, and how often?

Where

Where do you write?

What

What do you write about? Do you write creative pieces, or emails and texts, or posts on Facebook or other social media?

If you enjoy writing, and want to practise creative writing, here are some ideas to help you:

  • It helps to have a QUIET place to write
  • Keeping a JOURNAL or a DIARY is a really good way to write regularly. No one else needs to read this. It can be your private thoughts and feelings, a vivid dream you’ve had, a description of a beautiful sunset …
  • You can enter writing COMPETITIONS. These are advertised on the internet and in writing magazines
  • You can join a writing group. Many writing associations have specific groups for young writers.

But most of all, YOU WRITE BY WRITING!

Creativity

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The mythical unicorn embodies magic and wonder

Writing is a creative process. I don’t believe there should be too many rules. For every writer there’s a different ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘where’. When you read about the writing habits of famous authors, every one of them has different suggestions to make.

As to ‘why’ we write, most writers would agree that it’s something we need to do, almost as much as we need to eat and breathe, but on a soul level rather than on a physical level. I love this quote from Pearl S. Buck, which expresses so well the powerful drive behind a writer’s need to write.

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them … a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off … They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating. (Pearl S. Buck)

To diverge briefly, Pearl S. Buck was an American writer and novelist (1892–1973). The daughter of missionaries, she spent most of her life before 1934 in China. Her novel The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the U.S. in 1931 and 1932, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 for her depictions of peasant life in China. She was an amazing woman and well worth Googling to find out more about her!

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Pearl S. Buck wrote about her life in China

Writer’s block

Have you heard of ‘writer’s block’? Do you know what it means? When you’re a writer and you want to write something but the ideas don’t flow, it’s called writer’s block.  You can read these suggestions.

Here is another exercise to UNBLOCK. It might help not only to unblock your creativity, but also lead you to write a great story.

Creative ideas to overcome writer’s block

Write ten short, easy sentences – write them one by one, using a KEY WORD or a KEY IDEA for each sentence. It’s best to use SIMPLE words, and to write just ONE SHORT SENTENCE for each key word.

Just write. Don’t think too much. Here are some examples. You can use these or make up your own.

  1. Key word – weather
  2. Key word – an inanimate object. Example: a rock
  3. Key word – an article of clothing. Example: a pair of shoes
  4. Key word – what is the weather doing now? Example: raining
  5. Key word – a sound. Example: a continuous background sound, like a bell ringing
  6. Key word – a mood or feeling.  Connect the mood or feeling to the inanimate object. Even if it’s the rock, just go with it! Keep your creative mind open
  7. Key word – an outstanding character trait. Example: blackened and missing teeth. This is the first glimpse of one of your characters
  8. Key word – a sound. The same as before; make it happen again. In the example above, the bell ringing
  9. Key word – another article of clothing. Example: a woollen jacket. Link it to a physical action; a character may put it on or take it off
  10. Key word – first piece of dialogue. Make it unexpected. Simple. A question or a statement.

A premise or story idea

Now, start with a PREMISE – an IDEA for your story. Choose one of the following premises – just one – or make up your own:

  1. On a dark night you’re returning home from violin practice when you’re stopped by …
  2. Your best friend calls to tell you she’s watching a scary movie …
  3. A black cat crosses your path and …
  4. Mary Poppins turns up at your door and says …
  5. You go for a walk in the mountains and can’t find the path back …
  6. You win $10,000,000 in the Lotto
  7. Write about a picture you like.

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Writing your story

Putting it all together

Now start writing, using your PREMISE and the KEY WORDS and KEY IDEAS you came up with earlier.

Write no more than two pages.

If you find your idea expanding, write some more tomorrow, and the next day, and the next …

Before you know it, you might even find yourself writing a novel!

Have fun with your creative writing

Send me an email to tell me what you’re writing about, and how you’re going with your writing.

 

Client Testimonial: a Children’s Author

Recommending Gail of editors4you is my pleasure! Throughout the entire process of manuscript appraisal and editing, Gail’s positive and constructive feedback at each review of Gruntz made the task of fine-tuning certain elements easy to achieve. She listens to your reasoning on particular characters and themes and offers clear and concise suggestions to progress the story for readability and consistency.

Thank you again, Gail, for your professional attention and time with Book One–Gruntz: Finding zO!—Trish Teske, Gruntz: Finding zO (children’s novel)