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Plot or Character? Which Comes First?

Structure for Gardeners - Part III

Back in the summer, when the world – and me – were getting over the first panic wave of our life with COVID, I hosted a series of writing seminars on Facebook Live. Recently, I’ve been taking the information from those writing seminars and turning each of them into a series of blog posts.

This post – Defining Your Voice – is Part III of Structure for Gardeners and gives you some tips to discover what kind of writer you are and how to determine the “genre” of the book you’re writing or planning. (The first two parts can be found in the posts for Monday, Nov. 9 and Wednesday, Nov. 11.)


Are You Plot-Driven Or Character-Driven?

  • All stories have both plot arcs and character arcs. To give the reader a satisfying experience, both the plot of the story and the characters who inhabit the story need to be full – complete and satisfying – and multi-dimensional.

  • Every major character has an arc … a skeleton, like the plot … a history. Know your character’s history and give the reader enough of the history so the reader can relate to the character … be empathetic.

  • One way to look at the difference between plot and character is that events move the story … characters grow and change:

  • A character-driven story (a book that is more literary or personal) still needs a plot. There must be a point or purpose to the story – something to move the characters around on the stage

  • And, obviously, a plot-driven story still needs characters who are vivid and complex, people the reader really cares about – positively or negatively.

Wondering whether you are plot driven or character driven? Ask yourself this question: Am I more of a reporter or more an imaginer?

  • Reporters are either telling or showing you the story from a specific, outward point of view. Imaginers are relating the story from a point of view that is more inside-the-head and emotions of the characters. Great books deliver both engrossing plots and vivid characters.

In his great, little book – On Writing – Stephen King asserts that all writing is organic: as you write the story, the story develops, expands, moves into unexpected territory. The story tells you what it is.

King believes the same is true of characters, they often tell you their own story, what’s the motivation behind who they are or what they do. And sometimes, as these characters grow and mature, the depth of that character can come as a surprise, even to the writer.

  • I built a character in my first series, The Jerusalem Prophesies, named Sammy Rizzo. A dwarf, Rizzo was a brilliant researcher who ran the retrieval system at New York City’s main library branch. But he was also a wild and unpredictable dresser with an edgy New York attitude. And he was a clown, always ready with a barb or a one-liner. But it was only in the second book of the series that Sammy Rizzo revealed to me his backstory, about an abandoned mother who was so emotionally dependent on Sammy that he felt it was his responsibility to make his mother smile.

Selecting A Topic – What Is Your Story?

If you don’t know what you’re doing, or where you are going with this story idea, first talk to some authors, before you talk to editors. Other authors will often provide a different perspective on the story idea or help provide new details you hadn’t considered.

There are a couple of ways to evaluate the strength of your story … is the story FIT or WAGS?

Weak ideas: FIT:

  • Familiar – stories that we’ve read before

  • Important – just because it’s important to you, is it important to a wide audience?

  • True – just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s interesting to a wide audience

Strong ideas: WAGS:

  • World – creates a new world;

  • Active characters – they rise up to do something;

  • Goals – significant, important, critical, etc.;

  • Stakes – must be high

Selecting A Genre:

Know what it is you’re trying to write:

  • Study genre descriptions. Different genres have different styles, different expectations, different motives. If you are trying to fit a Thriller into a Chick Lit genre, it’s just not going to be satisfying to the reader.

Here are some basic genre types:

  • Mystery – crime in chapter one; detective works to solve the crime; don’t know who did it

  • Suspense/Thriller – protagonist and antagonist; readers are also in the bad guy’s head – the reader is privy to both lines of action … the suspense is how they come to confrontation … bad guy appears to have the upper hand until the end because the protagonist has something (more wisdom; weapon; etc.) to overcome

  • This is my definition of “Thriller” that I offered to another writer:

Lead me to a world I’ve never experienced before. Lead me there with flesh-and-bones people I admire, care about and root for. Make that world so vividly real that I will readily suspend any hint of disbelief and accept as plausible what absolutely strains the imagination. Give me a villain who gives me the creeps and surprises me with his plans. Ignite the action really early and keep it moving at a breakneck pace. Have tension on every page. Spin a tale so compelling and unpredictable that I’m willing to sacrifice my sleep to find out what happens next. And, when I get to the conclusion, give me an ending that is satisfying, but also leaves me with a shiver and a “Wow” on my lips. That’s what readers of thrillers require. Or they will close this book and look for a better one.

Other genres are:

  • Fantasy

  • High Concept – speculative fiction

  • Historical Romance

  • Westerns

  • Chick Lit

  • Science Fiction

On Monday we will look at the different ways to present a story to a reader: What is the Point of View? Who is telling the Story?


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