Tag Archives: Plotting

Plot Driven vs. Character Driven? So binary!

What do you base a story on? Do you have a plot that’s been rolling through your brain, based on an historical or life-changing event? Or is it based on a certain  person, grappling with a foible of the human condition? Fiction writing texts tell us most stories are plot-driven or character-driven, but I tend to think of it another way.  Not in all stories but perhaps in some, it’s the character’s own tendencies that drives the plot.

I recently read A Handmaid’s Tale (I believe I’m the last person in North America to actually say “I recently read” it), which no doubt can be considered plot-driven. In short, it’s set in the dystopian nation of Gilead, where a patriarchal and militaristic society subjugates women, most notoriously the young, fertile kind who must bear the society’s children for those who can’t. The story is told through the viewpoint of the handmaiden Offred, and it’s through her eyes that we learn firsthand of the totalitarian regime’s constraints. For much of the first part of the book we see how Offred bends to the will of the society, but as we learn, through flashbacks, about her personality and the way she lived her life before a government coup, we see how much her rebellious and questioning nature was suppressed. So  when she is allowed some liberties and is taken to a skewed but still viable throwback to the way life used to  be, she becomes bolder and starts taking chances again, her rebel proclivities driving the narrative to a precarious yet daring end.

So how does her inherent nature drive the plot? Without revealing too much of the story, if Offred was more reticent, if she remained subjugated, if she wasn’t willing to take life-or-death chances, the plot may have veered to a more tragic ending. Instead the character pushes the boundaries, drawing on her past experiences to use them as a catalyst for her forward actions. As a reader we get to know the Offred of the nation of Gilead, but also who she had been before it (there’s some conjecture what her real name is–some have said Kate, but she’s referred to as June in the the Netflix series). When we learn what was important to her in the past, how she handled certain situations, and most tragically what she had lost, we can better understand the decisions she makes when handling the situations she confronts now.

In effect, she’s acting in character, and it’s her intrinsic likes, dislikes, fears, and foibles that direct her actions and reactions, thus steering the plot. And it’s her own character flaws and attributes that make those plot twists and turns all the more believable. For the writer, delving deep into the personality of the character, really knowing who they are and what they’re capable of, is essential to the change that must come over your protagonist as they’re propelled toward the conclusion, and thus one wholly satisfying ending.

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Plotting for plot

shopping_groceryWhere do story ideas come from? Do they drop like rain out of the sky, or sprout beneath our feet like crack-in-the-sidewalk weeds? Do they barrel into us like a runaway train, or slip into our consciousness like a movie’s product placement?  Fact is, all of the above are correct. You just never know when a great story idea is going to hit you. But it’s also true you can’t wait for the Book Pixies to drop one into you lap. Great ideas have to be mined,  and there are several places where you can start digging. For instance…

1. Look to History – This method is the easiest of all. Just pick up any history book, open a page and point, and there’s guaranteed to be a story in it. How many bestsellers have been written about World War II? The Civil War? (A certain radish-hurling Southern belle springs to mind.) Or the Napoleonic Wars and hello! the Regency period in England? Honesty, how many United States history books ever even mentioned the Prince Regent, “Prinny,” yet his era spawned a wildly popular American subgenre of romantic fiction. Imagine today forty years from now. Meet-cute on Tinder? Love it!

2. News Stories, slightly libeled – There used to be a popular movie trailer come-on that went, Ripped from today’s headlines! Which nowadays has been slightly altered to read, BASED ON A TRUE STORY. It’s the same thing, but honestly, that CNN home page or local newspaper (newspapers–remember them?) is still a great source for plots. In a further variation on the above history theme, don’t discount headlines of yesteryear, either. Writer Peter Benchley got an idea for his book, Jaws, from the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that started on Long Beach Island. Who could argue with that success?

3. Family – Oh, yes, the original source of embarrassment and inspiration. How many of you have a weird Uncle Albert or Aunt Ada, the hoochie dancer, your father the war hero, your mother the self-made CEO of a multinational conglomerate (if you’re the latter, have her buy you a publishing company, and never worry about plot again). As for my own family, I have an original ‘49er, a nightclub singer, and a somewhat tenuous relation to Wyatt Earp’s brother, Virgil. Trust me, you never know.

4. Steal From Someone Else’s Story – Seriously, this is a viable option. Now, I’m not talking about opening up some New York Times bestseller and jacking right from the page. What I’m suggesting is taking a book in the public domain, and tell the story behind the story, what happens before or after, or from another character’s point of view. Jean Rhys prequeled Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea, and more recently, March, by Geraldine Brooks, tells the story of the absent father gone-to-war of the March girls of Little Women. Who hasn’t read a book and thought about an unexplored secondary character and wondered what their story was? Now’s your chance to clear it up.

5. Take a Walk – Any walk, anywhere, from your own street to a street far, far away. Take in the sights, the sounds, the buildings and the people, sit on a bench in a park, in a cafe, on a bus, at a museum, on a beach, by a lake, on an observation deck. If you can, do it alone to keep distractions at a minimum, allowing yourself to absorb everything that floats, waltzes or rolls past you. Leave the phone turned off and the ear buds in your pocket, and let the milieu do the talking. You’ll be amazed at what it tells you.