Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Drives Your Plot?

Yet another thing I rarely think about consciously, but should. What is driving the plot?

Is it a mystery? Conflict? Is it the appeal of the character themselves? Is it the setting, weaving through the whole story as though it itself was a character, drawing us in with its own presence. Action? The beauty of the prose (I wish)?

I usually go for a bit of a combination. Typically, I do rely on action, particularly in fantasy, with overt conflict. But I like to have (hopefully) a good hook into the character and their journey from the start. Then I try to build in some key mystery that the characters need to solve. I like to have internal characterisation of both the protagonists and the antagonists to help build up the sense of danger and raise the tension in the conflicts.

I think conflict can be a very powerful way of driving a plot - but it will only work if you have drawn the characters well. That's one thing that people forget, action only works if you have first hooked into the character. Otherwise who cares if they are suspended above the Pit of Doom by a thread of silk?

Whatever it is, it needs to dovetail with whatever is hooking the reader at the outset, and also consistent with whatever expectations are set up at the beginning of the book. For example, if you are promising a character-driven book, don't suddenly sideline the PoV character and introduce a cast of thousands with a mystery. If you start with the hint of a major conflict, don't have the Evil Overlord suddenly vanish and start a literary exploration of circular thinking in cool cafes.

What is your favourite way of driving a plot? What are your favourite examples of plot driven books?


Anonymous said...

I'm a sucker for a character-driven plot, with the action, conflict, and everything else driving the characters.

One book that I thought had an interesting take on that was Dave and Eric's Pyramid Scheme -- in that story the characters started out being driven by the plot, but then were able to turn the tables and drive the plot. It was a rather nifty subversion of the plot-driven story, I thought.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. I'm curious - do you tend to focus on the character when you write? Are you a "seat-of-the-pants" writer?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, you are right. The writer needs to engage the reader with the character. They have to care.

I teach a unit on screen writing and I had to give one student feedback on their script. I told him to make me care about the character, have him save the cat. I was referring to Blake Snyder's book on screen writing called 'Save the Cat'.

When he handed in the updated script he had the protagonist save a cat on page two.

So then I had to apologise and explain I was making a pop culture reference that he hadn't got and 'save the cat' was a cliche.

But the underlying meaning doesn't change. Make the reader care by having your character do something they can admire.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I think that (to make a sweeping, generalised statement with absolutely no supporting evidence) the driving force in most plots is conflict; conflict between nations, individuals, one's own emotions and beliefs... Conflict keeps things moving, and keeps the reader interested. I genuinely can't think of a book I have read which did not have a conflict as a significant element within the plot.

That said, the reader has to care about your character(s) for it to matter; nothing will turn me off a book more if there is a momentous, exciting backdrop, but the chap I am meant to be focussing on is boring and dry. And, of course, having layers to ones plot is also key; a one-note story gets boring pretty quickly too (for the writer as well as the reader I suspect).

John Lambshead said...

Chris, Chris, you're driving on the wrong side of the road.

Bill said...

Two things need to come out of a plot, for me.

One is that the world needs to grow, shift, change in some measure.

The second is that my character(s) need to get from point A to point B (psychologically, not necessarily geographically).

The plot becomes the way that I can make these things happen with relative interest, intrigue, etc.

C Kelsey said...


It looks like Chris is driving on the right side of the road to me. :P

Lucy's Blade is a very good example of a character driven plot. Lucy did not, after all, absolutely *have* to keep running out and fighting demons. Her personality made it inevitable though.

Also Sarah's Shifter series and Darkship Thieves are entirely character driven. They're quite the characters too... ;o)

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris. I do keep my focus on the character, and I am a bit of a "pantser." Mind you, I do have a basic structure and goal in mind for the plot -- but if it gets in the way of the storytelling, I'll tweak it on the fly ;-) I should also mention that I'm a sucker for good storytelling.

So, while I do want the story to move from Point A to Point B and hit a couple key points along the way, I want to make sure it's a good match for the character (as well as making sure the character is a good match for the story).

I ponder things like: Is this the resolution the character would work toward? Is this the path the character would follow? How do I make the reader give a crap whether the character succeeds or fails?

Anonymous said...

Mine are Character driven. That's almost always where the ideas start. Then I find a problem for them, then a solution, then I start doing some proper plotting and seeing where scenes need to fall to show it all properly.

Sometimes I get carried away World Building, and lose track entirely of the Main Characters and their problem. I am very definitely not a single draft person.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. That's priceless! Maybe the challenge is to have someone save the cat and make it work:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. I think you are on the money there. Character and conflict are two elements you can't separate from any good fiction. I guess I was trying to tease out what people tend to lean toward in their own fiction to drive things along.

Chris McMahon said...

Ha! Hi, John. That sacrifices I make for a US audience:) Its not just about the US spell checks.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Bill. Interesting way you phrase that - 'the world needs to grow.' Alost as though the boundaries of the reader grow with those of the character. Is this a way of effecting the characters? Is the world growing within them and making them experience?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Not sure if this is true, but I think the British started driving (carriages) on the left side just to spite Napoleon who had decreed the right side to help move things along his roads. Has a ring of truth to me. So I guess we are all unwittingly continuing the Napoleonic wars:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. I start with a much looser plan these days. I tend to only come to grips with a plot once I've really connected with the characters. Though, once I start writing I generally stick to the general plot. Must be more flexible.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I know exactly where you are coming from. Sometimes it feels like I have spent decades redrafting books. The scary thing is its probably true!

Stephen Simmons said...

My writing experience is almost entirely driven by the characters. The experience I end up producing for the reader? I'm trying to figure that out.

The two series-length pieces I'm working on both got started the same way: characters --> central question --> ultimate resolution --> major landmarks I wanted/needed them to hit along the way. From there on, the writing has all been driven by asking myself "What would these characters really do in the situation I've presented them with?", and going where they take me. I think the reader will end up with a mix, but the plot may be slightly more dominant.

C Kelsey said...


Same here. I tend to have characters who are highly developed in my head telling me the story. Sometimes, the characters are so developed that the background behind them doesn't make it into the story. This tends to cause readers to go, "umm, why is this character like this?"

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen and Chris. My fantasy work seems to start this way. The first idea that drives it is the idea of the character. I get a sense for them, then tease out the story from them. Not quite sure how this works, but the story seems to be inside the character somehow.

SF seems to be different. Often this will start with an idea, then a setting, then the characters. Hmmm - actually my latest SF piece started with the idea and the character together, bit of a change there.

Hey, best of luck guys!

Kate said...

Characters, for me, almost exclusively. The motivations of the characters and how they interact drives the plot.

Of course, being a serious pantser, I have some interesting detours along the way, but I've usually also got at least two sources of conflict running and kudzu subplots to prune.

Usually I end up with a character-driven conflict and a related plot-based conflict. In Impaler the external conflict (including some pretty epic-scale battles) is almost entirely driven by the internal conflict (Prince Draculea trying to make sure he and his family are safe). Most of my stories tend to work out that way - the internal need is blocked by something, which sets up internal and external conflict.

When I'm buried in the book and channeling the character, that's not how I think of it - I'm making the call based on analysis of what ended up in there after I finished writing it. What's happening when I'm writing is usually trying to get as much conscious me out of the way as I can to let the subconscious voice flow, while retaining enough self control to shape things so I don't end up doing something like Finnegan's Wake or deep navel gazing.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. It sounds like your plot is not the only thing driven by your characters:) Sounds like quite a process. I hope it does not leave you too exhausted!