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)


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Learn from the best like Hemingway and other great writers

How four great authors including Hemingway write

Writing is hard

Putting words on paper, and making those words meaningful and appealing to readers, is one of the most challenging tasks a writer can undertake, and even renowned authors struggle. So it’s time to learn from the best like Hemingway and other great writers!

To inspire you with your own writing, here are some methods that four great authors have used to create their stories. What better way to progress with your writing than to learn from the best, following the writing tips of great authors such as Hemingway and King.

Ernest Hemingway

American author and journalist, 1899–1961

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Ernest Hemingway

Stop while there is still more to be said

The classic American author is famous for never writing more than 500 words in a day. He said that he would wake up early in the morning – “to avoid the heat” – and write when it was quiet.

Hemingway was also famous for his drinking habits, but he reportedly never drank while writing. A little digression here: The quotation, “Write drunk, edit sober” is often mistakenly attributed to Hemingway. We have to admit that we’ve previously quoted it on Instagram! However, it seems there is no source for it in Hemingway’s works or conversations. Rather, similar words were put into the mouth of a character by author Peter de Vries in his book Reuben, Reuben (1964). The character was based on the famous drunkard poet Dylan Thomas and he says, “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.” http://www.reddit.com/r/QuotesPorn/comments/1gj6qu/

Hemingway only wrote a small amount each day because he believed that the creative process was continual; writers create their stories subconsciously as they go about their day-to-day lives thinking and daydreaming. Transcribing them is merely the last step. He said that an author should always stop writing when they know what is going to happen next, because this will prevent their inspiration from being drained and allow them to start again immediately when they next sit down to write. He would supposedly stop mid-sentence on some days for just this reason.

When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Stephen King

American author, born 1947

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Stephen King

Know when to write and when not to write

Like Hemingway before him, King’s preference is to write a set amount. He says that he writes 2,000 words a day, every day, however long that takes. But King also knows when not to write. He leaves each completed manuscript in a drawer for months before beginning the revising process, which helps him to be more ruthless when it comes to cutting down on superfluous words.

For King, the distinction between writing and not writing is clear. Although taking a break from writing can ultimately improve the result, when a story is originally being written, it must be written and nothing else. King says that revising and editing should wait until after the story is complete, and that writers must never look at a reference book during the first draft, because checking the facts prevents them from appearing on the page.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? Okay, so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? … You can check it, but later. When you sit down to write, write.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Russian-born novelist, 1899–1977

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Vladimir Nabokov

Use the medium that best suits you to write your book

A common debate among writers today is whether it’s best to type stories directly on a computer, or to handwrite a hard copy with pen and paper (at least for the first draft). Nabokov was a student of the latter school of thought; all of his novels were originally written on 3” x 5” filing cards, which he arranged and rearranged as the story gradually took shape. The cards were initially meticulously organised and stored in long wooden boxes.

“…I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.

Later, once the early draft process was complete, Nabokov copied each of these cards on regular notebook paper, expanding them to create a coherent novel. Another Nabokov quirk was that he always wrote standing up.

Francine Prose

American writer, born 1947

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Francine Prose

Boredom is productive

Prose’s writing is well known for containing certain essential (though often witty and ironic) truths about life, which she acquires through a keen observation of the world around her.

Prose lived for long periods in both the country and the city. She says that the reason she was so productive while she lived in the country was because she was incredibly bored. With nothing interesting to do, she did not find it difficult to sit down and write for long stretches of time. By contrast, Prose found living in the city to be highly engaging. There was always something fun or exciting happening to distract her, which had an impact on her writing.

Her solution was to move her writing desk so that it faced the window, allowing her to look out upon nothing but a brick wall. She found the view to be so uninspiring that she managed to write for several hours each day.

“Writing while facing a wall, incidentally, seems to me the perfect metaphor for being a writer.”

 

(This blog is a collaboration between editors4you.com and Rhiannon Raphael, a student at Bond University.)

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