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The Seductive and Enduring Myth of the Plot-driven Narrative

February 9, 2023


by John Pipkin, fiction faculty



We’ve all heard the easy distinction frequently made: some stories are plot-driven and other stories are character-driven. It seems a simple and harmless distinction, but it is one that can have a cascading and detrimental effect on the writing process, because it implies that there are two different (and separate) kinds of stories: those in which the sequence of events unfolds with such speed and ferocity—a juggernaut of explosions and confrontations—that the plot carries the story entirely on its own, and the characters are, well, just along for the ride. On the other hand, as this distinction would seem to tell us, there are also stories in which the interior life of the main character so dominates the narrative—a solitary mind ruminating in a dark room, possibly chain-smoking in front of a broken television—that the thoughts and emotions of the character alone constitute the story, and the plotting is defined by disconnected events or inaction entirely. To follow this distinction further, beyond just its semantic inaccuracy, as writers we might even tell ourselves when sloshing about knee-deep in the muddy alleyways of the frustrating first draft: my characters don’t need interior lives, because I’m writing a “plot-driven” narrative, or maybe even more confining, nothing at all has to happen in my story, because what I’m writing is a “character-driven” narrative.


This tantalizing division between plot-driven and character-driven stories is likely an unexpected side effect of otherwise good academic intentions and critical practices aimed at formalizing literary analysis. How do you untangle and demystify the mysterious process of storytelling, which, when it works, can seem like an impenetrable act of magic? How do you explicate the functions of literary narrative? You take things apart, distinguish one part from another, give them labels, analyze them individually. As categories, “plot” and “character” are perhaps just creaky artifacts of mid-20th-century New Criticism practiced by the formidable critics of the day, a distinction that tempts us, as writers, to break down our own texts into component parts (like disassembling an engine to figure out how it works) in order to give the parts names, put them in categories, and then pretend that what we are writing is a self-contained, self-sustaining piece of machinery. When something isn’t working in this mechanized narrative model, we can easily diagnose the “problem” and “fix” it, adding new parts, swapping out the old, the way we might replace a spark plug or retrofit a modern fuel pump into an ailing lime green Dodge Dart.


But stories are organic.


(And as Wordsworth cautioned, sometimes “we murder to dissect.”)


Even a meticulously structured story of intricate architecture, an elegant narrative that chugs along seemingly like a well-tuned clockwork of gears and pistons, is actually more closely related to a living organism in which every joint and sinew relies upon the other, and the maladies of any one organ will visit discomfort and dysfunction throughout the body.


Plot and character, character and plot, are intricately interwoven, interdependent, not opposites, not at odds with each other (not even when a character might need to do something that they really shouldn’t or don’t want to do). In her 1845 treatise, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller dismantled another long-held semantic dichotomy. “Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” We might say the same of the calcified distinctions so often made between plot and character.


It is far more productive to think of all stories as being “character-driven” while at the same time recognizing that what these characters are actually “driving” is the “plot.” There is no wholly character-driven narrative, no purely plot-driven story. Without character, there are no desires or yearnings or fears to move the plot forward. Without plot, there are no accidents or consequences to trigger a character’s evolving awareness of self and world. Plot doesn’t begin to arise until a character responds to external events, and a character’s full self-discovery seldom comes to fruition until they have the occasion to take an action that embodies or reveals who they are. Strong plots, organic plots, arise out of character. But you won’t know what a character is going to do (how they will react, or what choices they will make) until you know the character fully enough to understand how they think and feel, what they want and need, how their past has shaped their future.


This is not to say that all stories exhibit the same balance between their exploration of characters and their description of the things they do in the plot. Of course, some stories have more events and actions and external consequences than others, and some stories delve more deeply into the psychological and emotional complexities of the characters. But in both cases, the decisions, choices, actions, and reactions of the characters are what gives us the plot, and it is the plot that serves as the catalyst for self-revelation and self-discovery in the characters.


During the arduous slow progress of revision, we might tell ourselves, “My plot is strong but my characters need some fixing,” or “My characters are well-developed, but more plot needs to be added.” But simply mending or replacing the isolated “broken” parts of a draft seldom works. Often, what appears to be a plot problem really stems from characters who aren’t developed enough to make the decisions that will push the plot in a new direction. And just as often, underdeveloped characters are the result of not encountering enough plot to instigate change. Simply adding more plot like a spare part will often result in making characters do things only because the author wants them to, instead of the characters doing things because of who they are. And trying to add “depth” to a character, like a new coat of paint, without considering the external consequences of these “internal” changes, will leave that character stranded in a world of effects that they are unlikely to have caused (or that they might have chosen to avoid altogether.)


Discovering who you are as a writer—how you think, what your process is—is also essential to figuring out how to negotiate the needs of character and plot. Think of where you tend to find your stories and what usually gives you the idea for a story. Character? Plot? Setting? Theme? What do you think about first? There’s no wrong place to begin. It’s fine to ignore plot when you first start thinking about a story, just as it’s fine not to think about characters when you first start imagining the events that will drive your story along. But at some point in the writing process, you’ll need to find the organic heart of the story, where all of these separate parts (which really aren’t “separate” or even “parts” at all) will push and pull and blend with each other to get that heart beating. The real benefit of approaching narrative in this way, is that in those moments when you are stuck and don’t know where the story should go next, you’ll know that you’re not alone. If you have a well-developed character at your side, you have someone to lean on, someone to conspire with, someone to ask: “I don’t know what happens next, so what would you do, dear character of mine?” Making your plot organic means nothing more mysterious than letting your characters make choices and decisions (preferably bad ones) that are unique to who they are. And when that sets the plot in motion, it’s not the character but the writer who’s just along for the ride.


 

John Pipkin’s newest novel is The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. His critically acclaimed debut, Woodsburner, was awarded the First Novel Prize by the New York Center for Fiction, the Fiction Award from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner First Novel Prize, and was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor.





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