The term “plot” is oftentimes used in place of “action,” when referring to what drives a story, but that’s not exactly what plot is. Plot is the chain-reaction series of events that create the core of a story. Plot is what the story is about. It isn’t limited to the physical movement or action in a narrative (external conflict), but includes the mental, intellectual and emotional movement (internal conflict), as well.
When the emphasis of a story is on its physical movement (someone kidnaps the wrong person, and she blows stuff up to get away), then the story is driven by action. When the emphasis is on inner or “mental” movement (developing relationships, for example), then the story is driven by character.
To imply that a story is “plot”-driven, rather than action-driven, is to imply that it has meaning or worthiness of being read (because it has plot). What does this do? This implies that character-driven stories have little to no plot. If you scour various writing forums, you will find many comments suggesting that someone’s character-driven novel lacks plot, and this simply is not true. They’ve mistaken “plot” for physical movement or action, rather than the series of causal events that create the core of the story.
What drives the story is the focus of these events. It’s easy to assume they’re physical because action usually moves a story forward. However, characters can also move a story forward just as effectively and powerfully. In character-driven pieces, the physical sequence of events serve as the subplot, whereas in action-driven pieces, the inner/mental sequence of events often serve as the subplot.
Need an example?
In thrillers, the main plot is Bad Guy doing this and Hero apprehending him (physical sequence). The subplot is Hero getting the girl (emotional sequence). In Romances, the main plot is Hero 1 and Hero 2 falling in love (emotional), the subplot is them finishing the project that brought the two together (physical).
Let’s take Remember the Titans. The point of remembering the Titans was an examination of how racism in society destroys unity. Without the outside influence of racism, an interracial team was undefeatable, but when subjected to the outside pressures from friends, family and the community, the interracial team crumbled. The main movement is internal. The point is internal. Watching the team going from decent to great and winning a football tournament was the added bonus of its subplot.
Another example is The Green Mile. The healings, executions and Percy’s removal were integral events, but the story was not centered around them. The narrative emphasized Paul growing as a human being, developing a personal relationship with an inmate, identifying racial injustices and microaggressions, and accepting John’s desire to pass away instead of breaking free. That is the Plot—it’s emotional, it’s internal, it’s powerful, it’s character-driven.
In conclusion, “plot”-driven does not mean action-driven. Physical movement doesn’t always move the story forward, nor does it always serve as the Plot. Therefore, to conclude that a story has a strong, weak or missing plot based on its physical movement is to misunderstand the character-driven narrative.