Mark Terry

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What Is Plot?

November 18, 2008
I was considering this question because of a recent rejection letter apparently accusing me of being plot-driven rather than character-driven. It's said with an accusing tone, I think, and dogma in publishing circles seems to be that character-driven is desirable, whereas plot-driven is not.

I don't actually think those two things can be so neatly separated. In fact, my guess is that the editor's comment meant "I didn't really like the character" more than anything else. Or perhaps, "I really wanted them to stop chasing all over the southwest solving clues and sit down over a latte and discuss their feelings." Or maybe I'm just biased in that regard.

Anyway, the reason I think the two can't be separated is my own extremely broad definition of a good read:

Interesting people doing interesting things.

The "character" aspect is the "interesting people."

The "plot" aspect is the "doing interesting things" with particular emphasis on "doing."

It's entirely possible that this is a gender issue, that men are more interested in characters that actually do things, while women are more interested in characters who feel thing. That's such a gross stereotype I'm not comfortable with it, but there may be some truth to it.

So what is plot?

Let's take two books. 

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. My memory of the book is a little vague, but basically a professor of religious symbology, Robert Langdon, is called in by the police because a friend of his was murdered in a bizarre fashion in the Louvre. Robert then goes off on a wild chase all over Europe, deciphering religious symbols and clues that were being hidden by the Templars, trying to solve a mystery that will turn the world upside down. (Actually, my biggest problem with the book is that idea that anything like facts or logic would in any way harm religion, but that may just be me).

Anyway, the book's chock full of plot. Robert Langdon is probably not a fascinating character. He has a fascinating job (one that apparently no one in the world actually has) and he's very quick and very clever and and very smart and near-perfectly designed to solve the mystery he's involved in. It would have been a very different book indeed if the main character had been Jill Jones, a 2nd grade teacher from Des Moines on vacation in France who gets sucked up in the same story.

Clearly, despite editors desire to have a character-driven story, one of the most successful books of all time was plot-driven.

Let us compare this to:

Uh, wait. I'm looking over the hundreds of books on my shelf trying to find one that doesn't have a plot. Well, there's some nonfiction. But are there any on my shelf that have such weak plots that I would call them "character-driven?" Hmmm...

Let's take an imaginary novel, one about, say, Mary Smith, who works in the accounting department of a large retail store like, say, Macy's. She's divorced, no children, sort of plain, and nothing happens in her life. She wakes up in the morning, eats yogurt and drinks coffee, takes the subway into work, spends 4 hours on spreadsheets, eats a falafel for lunch at the nearest falafel shack, goes back to her spreadsheets, takes the subway home, does Tae-Bo to a video for an hour, vacuums her flat, has a salad for dinner, then reads for an hour, watches Comedy Central, then goes to bed. And the next day she does it all over again.

Mary may have a perfectly ordinary (though relentlessly uneventful) life and for all we know she's perfectly happy with her humdrum life. During this we can learn a hell of a lot about her, we can dissect her character. We can discover that she's a vegetarian because her father worked at a butchery where they slaughtered sheep and pigs and cows and she never got over it. We can find out that her ex-husband had an affair with her sister, so she has no contact with her family. We can find out that she likes the orderly, predictable nature of accounting because her mother was bipolar and their home life was crazy.

We can, in fact, learn all we want to known about Mary and go on for pages and pages and pages about her character.

But no one will read the damned book unless something happens. Preferably something interesting, as my earlier definition indicates.

Now, just for the sake of argument, let's say that Mary's sister and ex-husband are killed in a car accident and she is given custody of their two children, ages 7 and 9. Now, Mary's life is totally upside down, her routine is shredded. She has to adjust, they have to adjust, and while we're at it, let's throw in some guy that she's suddenly attracted to. A babysitter? Someone at work? Or, hey, maybe her ex-husband's lawyer who is overseeing the transition of the will? Or the sensitive social worker who's checking to make sure the children are adjusting.

Now, we have a plot. Interesting things are happening.

Is Mary interesting?

Well, to someone.

Are these interesting things?

To someone.

Not all books are for the same people, but if readers can identify with Mary, and you throw in enough conflict and, hopefully, enough incident, then you have both a character-driven and plot-driven story.

Would I like to read it?

Probably not, unless she was being stalked or someone had murdered the ex-husband, etc. That's the way I lean in my stories. I might be surprised though, if I can identify enough with Mary.

It's also important to note that people read for different reasons. I read for entertainment and escape. God help me, some people read to be "enlightened," whatever the hell that is. There are people who read "literature" because they want to... you know, I'm not entirely sure what their argument is. They want to be uplifted or depressed or perhaps to feel smugly self-righteous that what they're reading is "good for them" in some way. And I was just starting off on a tangent about this, but let's stop and recognize that all books have value to the readers and we shouldn't be arrogant about any of our reading material being better than anyone else's.

I don't think you can separate plot from character. Plot evolves out of character, out of how they would react in a particular situation. In my own novel, The Devil's Pitchfork, the main character is a troubleshooter for Homeland Security. He's a doer. His reactions to events are from training in microbiology and biochemistry and in Special Forces. So when he reacts to things, it comes about from his training, from his experiences, his job ... and his character. He's witnesses  biological and chemical and traditional warfare first hand. He slipped into Iraq under cover after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds. He's seen many things he wishes he hadn't and it's affected him.

If I were to write the same story with a main character who was an innocent bystander caught up in horrific events, the story would be different because of how that character responded, based on that character's traits and personality. Different characters, different stories.


Mark Terry


Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Try Lori Perkins. She sells fantasy and I quote her, "a badly written but well plotted book will sell but a well written badly plotted book will not." The Writing Show in Richmond Va. Feb 28, 2008

Also on her blog she says, "I know a lot of agents who will not take on an author who brings in less than $25,000 a year. Many of my authors were those discarded authors. I've since been able to bring them up to that level, but it's a long process of at least 3 to 5 years. So, as an agent, I have to be in love with the author's work in order to make that commitment."

7:39 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I agree. "Plot-driven" and "character-driven" are just handy little labels that people have tricked themselves into believing actually mean something.

They're connected. Yes, you might have more latte talk, but things still happen, that's plot. And if you have car chases with no characterization, nobody cares.

It's like that tendency to open a movie with an explosion. I. Do. Not. Care. Unless I care about the characters.

I watched Hellboy II with Tom last night, and I thought, for the first five minutes: "Oh, this is going to suck"

Cause they had pulled out the big guns. Cinematography, wowhee, big armies of what the hell ever those creatures were. Trying to make the story big, epic.

But I don't think you can MAKE a story epic, it either is, or it isn't.

So anyway, I didn't get hooked until we got to modern times (there was a flashback at the beginning), and Hellboy had his first lines. THEN the flavor of the movie started to show through.

That other was supposed to hook me, but it as just noise. I wasn't hooked until I cared about the characters again.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

What makes Story happen? Prearranged circumstances, or character motivation. That's the difference in a nutshell, I think.

Jaws is primarily plot-driven. The characters react to the situation thrown at them. If the shark had never eaten that first swimmer, there would have been no story. Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, is primarily character-driven. Things happen only when the characters make them happen. Jack Crawford gets the ball rolling when he sends Starling in to interview Lecter.

So, either method can be great, depending on how it's handled. With a plot-driven story, though, you have to be careful not to populate it with two-dimensional cutouts, characters who are there only in service of the plot, moved around by Almighty Writer like pegs on a board.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think "plot driven" and "character driven" are more of those essentially meaningless buzz words and that editors and agents, if they were pinned down, wouldn't be able to give you any hard and fast definitions. I suppose you might say a book is character driven to the extent that the plot arises from the characters personalities as reflected by their actions but in real life we all have to deal with many things that don't arise from our own actions so that's sort of unrealistic. Very few readers, IMHO, like books without plots and the majority, I imagine, read mostly for the story - ie the plot.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Kath Calarco said...

Mark, sounds like the reason given for your recent rejection was lame. It's as if they picked it from their "rejection dart board."

I'm clueless when deciphering plot vs. character driven. I always thought character driven novels went around in circles and ended when the author got tired of writing.

First and foremost, I read for the entertainment factor, although I really enjoy certain lit-fic, too.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, I have an agent. I've heard of Lori Perkins, though.

I think that $25,000 figure is interesting, because that includes most authors. And for the agent, $25,000 a year only comes to $3750 a yeara.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I liked Hellboy II, but I don't remember much about the beginning. What I remember most was Hellboy and Abe drinking beer and singing Barry Manilow. Guess that's all character, huh? On the other hand, the whole pregnancy thing left me cold.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't know. Is the shark the main character or the sheriff? If it's the shark (Bruce), then yeah. But so much of what's going on there is from Scheider's POV and his real fears, not only for himself and his family, but the people he's hired to protect... sounds sort of character-driven.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Probably. There's nothing new about over-analyzing rejection comments. But we do hear a lot of editors and agents babble on about plot-driven versus character-driven, and I suspect that the real problem is "we didn't like the character."

10:22 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

My guess is that it was probably #4 on her handy-dandy rejection list, right after:

--Does not meet our current needs
but right before
--I don't feel it's strong enough to market effectively in the current publishing environment

10:24 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

hehe I loved the Manilow part! hahaha. And that "can't smile without you" song, I had that growing up on 8-track. Which is probably what's wrong with me. hahaha.

Why did the pregnancy thing leave you cold?

It's a tiny bit cliche though. Like love can't possibly progress unless there is a bun in the oven. Though I think Hellboy would make a cool dad and that could open up to a very interesting third movie. I'd love to see what those two produce.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

It may just be that whenever a TV show or movie (or books, I suppose) dredge up pregnancy as a complication, I wince. I recently read Zoe Sharp's Third Strike, which is a terrific book, but the pregnancy part of it left me cold, although I'm sure there are a lot of readers who look forward to how it will affect things.

I don't know, really, maybe it just seemed so much like a sit-com when it's "jumped the shark." A bunch of nearly out-of-work writers sitting around the office going, "The show's just about dead, we've got to do something to liven it up. Hey, I know! Make her pregnant!"

11:11 AM  
Blogger A.C. Douglas said...


You yourself stated the key to the plot vs. character thing. You wrote:

I don't think you can separate plot from character. Plot evolves out of character, out of how they would react in a particular situation.

It's precisely that that makes a successful novel, and why The Da Vinci Code — megabestseller that it was (is) notwithstanding — is the piece of crap that it is. Provoked by seeing the movie for the first time (a "crashing bore," as I wrote) I've just finished reading that book (yeah, I know; way late to the party), and had this to say about it in part:

There's hardly a page of The Da Vinci Code that does not induce multiple cringes at the execrable prose writing; writing so execrable it's almost beyond tolerance. Leaving aside the efforts of my own good self, I don't believe I've ever read a work of fiction, even mystery fiction, that could equal or surpass it in badness. [...] The characters are two-dimensional jokes; the incidents, contrived; and the plot, while inherently intriguing, is not much more so than the plots of a number of mystery novels I'd read previously.... True, the expansion and embellishment of the quasi- or pseudo-historical basis of the inherently intriguing plot of The Da Vinci Code gave that plot a certain frisson not otherwise attainable. But still....

And the reason this novel is such a piece of crap (apart from its execrable prose writing) is that the plot does NOT "evolv[e] out of character." The characters are there merely as an excuse for the plot. As I wrote, the plot is inherently intriguing. But that does NOT a work of fiction make. Without fully-fleshed-out characters, there is no novel. There's merely a good idea for a novel.


11:41 AM  
Blogger A.C. Douglas said...


My above closing line, "There's merely a good idea for a novel," should have read: "There's merely a potential idea for a novel."


11:47 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I tend to think character-driven novels DO have plots that go hand-in-hand, but when you are done, you have a passion for the characters (and hence any series the author might be developing). Something about the character remains. Maybe it's a gender thing, but I never--EVER--tell a book plot (of what I choose to read or write) and say "It's about a murder investigation." I always leap off with (again, if it's something I love), "It's about this amazing child psychiatrist who gets pulled into a strange case. The psychistrist has x, y, and z quirks. His best friend is x, y, and z" etc. It all spins out of character for me. But again, that may be what I gravitate toward. I wouldn't read a book where, at the end, I might be compelled to say, "It was about a guy who tries to save the world from terrorists" UNLESS that GUY was so well-rounded, charming and MEMORABLE. I know I'm not articulating it right, but it's for me all about character and something HAS to HAPPEN--yes. But if the character is interesting enough, I might forget most of the events. Look at Fletch. I couldn't tell you a SINGLE case he did. But I could tell you a lot about Fletch. And I haven't read a Fletch book in 15 years.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's a lot of "execrables."!!!

So, tell us what you really think of DVD!

Actually, given the casting and the director, I really wanted to like the movie. Unfortunately, well, let's just go with boring and leave it at that.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

What I think--and probably didn't say--was that for a book to be very successful, in most cases you need both a great plot and a memorable character. That said, Michael Crichton often got lambasted for great plots but no characterizations. Critics were a little hard on him for that, but one of my key questions I ask myself after time has gone by is this:

What's the name of the character?

If it weren't for the movie Jurassic Park, I question if I would remember Ian and Allan (and maybe only Ian because it's my son's name). I probably would remember Ian's character because he was the rock-and-roll chaos theory mathematician. Allan--I guess he was an archaeologist that didn't like kids.

And I mostly agree with you. Ask me about Sue Grafton's novels, you mention Kinsey; John Sandford, you get Lucas Davenport; Jonathan Kellerman, both Alex and Milo; Robert B. Parker, Spenser and Hawk. Those novels, which all sure have plots, also have interesting characters.

Still, sometimes, if I were asked to describe a bestselling novel's main character--take Michael Crichton's Prey--I might be blank. Uh, don't remember his name or even his job, but he had marital problems. That's about it. The novel was about nanoparticles going crazy. Other than that, couldn't tell you a thing about the main character.

On the other hand, in Dick Francis's "To The Hilt" I can tell you the main character's name was Alexander, he was a painter, he lived out in a bothy in Scotland, was a distant relative to an Earl, had been married to a horse trainer, wasn't liked by his stepfather, his mother was unemotional, his father died in a hunting accident, he wore his hair long, preferred acrylics to oils, was good at hiding things, was considered eccentric by everybody but himself...

Great character and great plot.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Bill Pronzini explains it pretty well here.

There's a real distinction, Mark. It's not just a matter of meaningless buzzwords and dartboard rejection reasons as some here have suggested.

2:47 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I think you're absolutely right, Mark: you can't have one without the other, not really. (Barring really bad literary fiction, but that's just my nsho.)

I'm probably not one to comment on the whole female or male stereotype thing. I was the only person in the theater, man or woman, to clap her hands and squeal at the fight scene in Bourne Supremacy. (That was WAY cool!) I don't get a kick out of things blowing up, but I love fight scenes.

I tend to think of things through the reader's experience, but I won't bore you with a long, boring comment. I'll bore everyone with a post tomorrow, LOL. ;-)

3:05 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Haha, Mark. Good point. Pregnancy as a complication of a story is a little annoying, now that you mention it.

And OMG, now the Asian Warhammer players are spamming your blog. Watch out!

5:42 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Pregnancy is EXTREMELY annoying as a plot device. I mean, come on. In the "plot" that is my life, pregnancy means I gain 30 pounds and throw up every day for six months, not to mention lounge on the sofa, moaning and drinking coke, while my current kid(s) destroy the house around me.

Er, plot v character? What he said. :D
Hardly scintillating stuff.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

Although it’s hard to pin down a solid definition between character versus plot driven stories, I tend to know the difference when I read them. To me, the key element in a character driven story is growth. The main character is not the same person at the end that he or she was at the beginning. The character changes, sometimes for good, sometimes not. But there’s always some change, no matter how small.

In plot-driven stories such as James Bond or Dirk Pitt novels, there’s little if any change or growth in the main character from beginning to end. Their job is to act and react to the plot. In the end, 007 is the same guy he was at the beginning.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

(I'm waiting for those 30,000 words you promised me!)

So it's like the definition of obscenity, huh? You know it when you see it?

I don't disagree, I just wonder, has Alexa Delaware changed much over the course of 20 books or so? I think Kinsey Millhone has (not necessarily for the better; she's crabbier and more insulated than she was 17 or 18 books ago). John Rain has changed a lot, interestingly, because Barry Eisler writes spy novels, but I would call his books very character-driven, although they have strong plots as well.

What about the novels of Child and Preston, though? Definitely plot-driven. But has Agent Pendergast, certainly one of the more interesting characters in thriller fiction, changed? I'm not sure.

Word verification: slatiog

9:30 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

(I'm waiting for those 30,000 words you promised me!) They're on the way.

10:11 AM  
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7:20 PM  
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11:40 AM  

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