Is your story plot-driven or character-driven?

In the writing world much is said about plots and plotting in general can lead to many a writer’s frustration. There are many theories about plots but perennial favorites are that:

  • There are only two basic plots
  • There are 36 basic plots
  • There are no new plots
  • Every plot possible has already been used/created

No matter where you may stand on the above, knowing the difference between plot driven and character driven stories can only help you strengthen your story.

Plot-driven stories

Plot driven stories are tales in which the story is more important than the individual characters. It is the type of story that Hollywood calls ‘high concept’ and often involves stories that are larger than life like, alien invasions of Earth, a global outbreak of a virulent disease, or some other disaster that will affect the human race on a large scale. Think, Jurassic Park, Outbreak, Meteor, and The Matrix.

Character-driven stories

Conversely, in character driven stories the characters take center stage and drive the plot. In fact, the story is the characters themselves, how they change, what they learn, wisdom gained or not. Hollywood may refer to these stories as ‘small films’ and foreign films are often character oriented and tell the story of the characters. Think Taxi Drive, Silence of the Lambs, and Rocky. In these stories we come to know the characters generally on a deeper level and care more strongly about what happens to them.

Examples of each type

Examples of character-driven stories include:

  • The Quest – the protagonist searches for a person, place or thing and the story usually results in the hero experiencing a large personal change and a gain of personal wisdom about something. Think Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Transformation – the protagonist goes through a process of change and ends with a clarifying incident that enables the character to understand the nature of his experience and how it has affected him. Think My Fair Lady, Ordinary People, On the Waterfront, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Examples of plot-driven stories include:

  • The Pursuit – this type of story is one character or group of characters chasing another. Generally the story is the chase and there are no large characters arcs or introspection. Think, The Terminator, Sugarland Express, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  • The Riddle (mystery) – this story is pretty well known by most – something happens we want to know why and whodunit. Clues, are tucked among the story for the reader to discover the answer to the riddle. Think Memento, Rear Window, and The Maltese Falcon.

Of course some stories can be a combination of two or more types within the plot-driven and character-driven categories. If you’re interested in knowing more about character and plot driven stories, I recommend you pick up a copy of 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias. The book is easy to read, very informative, and will definitely help any writer determine what type of plot will work best for their story.

Copyright 2011

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