The Guilt of Writing

The Guilt of Writing

I used to write poetry and dabbled in short stories as a kid, yet never considered penning novels until I was an adult. Now, I rarely write poetry, though shorts still sift through the deepest trenches of my mind.

For the past few years I’ve written full-length novels, helped others edit theirs, and even peeped a few shorts, articles, etc for friends. I’ve had brief hiatuses during major events and in my life, yet I’m still in the same place, striving to hone my craft and inviting people to check out my work in case they’d like to represent it.

And still, these short stories whisper in my ear, write me.

As an unpublished novelist, I felt guilty at the thought of spending precious time writing anything other than a novel—how dare I waste the resource of mental energy on something I don’t plan to publish?

I’d backed myself into the emotional corner of, nope, snag an agent first and then maybe you’ll deserve the luxury of frivoled time. I’d felt like I needed permission to write about what excited me because it isn’t a novel, and you haven’t “made it” yet.

Then one day, just to get these whispering sprites out of my ear, I wrote one.

I was in the middle of editing one novel while scribbling another, and this idea kept buzzing around like one of those mosquitoes you can hear but can’t find, and you just know it’s gonna bite you sooner or later… So, I gave in, and I wrote the whispers.

And I felt so much release. I felt so energized, revitalized, refreshed as a world builder.

Standing at only 12 pages (barely enough time to give readers a grasp on a novel’s situation), my short was the most pleasing thing I’d written that month. (Granted, it was the first day of the month…)

As a survivor of my own shackles, I wanted to share this story with other authors—both published or aspiring to be. Your story has worth. Your story even has a market. Your story has a place, and you deserve to drop whatever you’re working on to write it, even if you don’t plan on publishing it.

I was in the middle of editing one book and writing another—I had neither the time nor the right to take my attention away from the task at hand. But I did it anyway, and when I wrote the last word, I sighed with satisfaction and peace. I was riding the high of something completed, something finished, and something powerful, and it propelled me to finish what I’d started before it.

You don’t need permission to write a new exciting story—novel-length or micro. You don’t need to finish the story you’re in the middle of before moving on to another. (Okay, barring contracts and deadlines.)

But if you need to hear it, then let me scream it from your rooftop (with a harness and a bunch of inflated airbed thingies on the ground because I’m terrified of heights and exceptionally uncoordinated), WRITE OUT OF YOUR NICHE! WRITE THAT GOOFY STORY ONLY ITS AUTHOR COULD LOVE! STOP WRITING WHAT’S GOT YOU STUCK AND FRUSTRATED AND PEN WHAT KEEPS CALLING TO YOU.

Trust me, you aren’t sabotaging yourself, your dreams or your works in progress. In fact, you’re investing in them all.

Tell The Story

Tell The Story

I’ve been guilty of this because I’m a novelist. I’ve put too much emphasis on the novel.

I happily write novellas, but the idea of writing anything shorter never came naturally to me. Simple thoughts and beautiful accounts have flourished in my head, but they were all “too short.” Despite how often I dwelled on powerful events or daydreamed about how two lovers met, I struggled to find a valid reason to put them on paper.

I’d set these ideas aside, fully intent on making them scenes in a novel-length manuscript, but only recently did I realize my error—I was putting novel expectations on a story that was never meant to be longer than a few pages.

I’d only considered these images as random, irrelevant snippets of a brilliant story, but… these snippets were the brilliant story. They didn’t belong to a larger work. They were the work.

I completely dropped the ball in realizing the novel I was trying to fluff this idea into was happier as a short story.

Instead of stressing over how to make the novel satisfying, or putting the idea on a backburner until more comes to me, I now write the story as it wishes to be written, knowing that I can either add to it later, or take away from it during editing.

Hear me, dear novelist, if an idea comes to you that seems “too short” or inadequate, then accept it as a short story and write that perfect piece of flash fiction.

Hear me, dear short series veteran, if your work in progress wishes to drag across the pages, then let it and see where it goes—your delete button works (trust me, I tried it while you weren’t looking).

Very little is more freeing as authors when we remind ourselves that we don’t have to make an idea fit the word count we’re used to. Don’t compare the value of your short story with your expectations of a novel. 3 pages or 333 pages, they both are equally valid and worthy of being written.

So, write it.

Keeping Your Readers Engaged

Keeping Your Readers Engaged

reading-1223519_960_720The trick to keeping your readers engaged is to keep your writing engaging. How is this accomplished?

Opening is everything.

Have a good opening, especially with chapters. Don’t use your character brushing her teeth or tinkling while waiting for the shower water to get hot as a means of opening your chapter if that’s how the previous one started. It doesn’t work that way. Readers are mystical things. We’re easy to please… until we get annoyed. Starting every chapter the same way as the previous is a surefire way to get us there.

Short and sweet, fewer and neat.

Write a whole bunch on what you’re trying to say. Then delete 50-75% of it. Pare it down until you use the fewest words that pack the biggest punch, and trust your readers to connect the dots (but be reasonable—most people don’t want to become philosophers when reading fiction. Or, rather, most people don’t want to become philosophers just to understand your story).

Progression

Make sure there’s enough progression to keep your readers interested. Thrust them out of the daily busywork, and propel them into the next scene where, months later, the king comes and kills all of his own people because his jealousy over their simpleton lives ate at his ever-busy heart. Something.

Action, Action, Action!

If you don’t move forward with the plot, then add a bit of interesting action. Like the 5-year-old peasant who taught himself how to shoot the arrow that killed the king who slaughtered his simpleton friends and loved ones. Or Love Interest’s ___ist comment that made Romance Hero reevaluate the pursuit.

Focus on the right thing.

The most important piece I can offer is to keep in mind the overall Plot of your book. The plot isn’t about the way the waiter delivered the king’s meal, it’s about the king growing discontent with the demands and necessary ugliness of his responsibilities, or the moment where the boy started tying strings to sticks.

So, let’s not dedicate pages or even chapters to focusing on the king’s gown preparation every morning (though, talking about the newest addition to his train can add dynamic—victorious kings cut off a rivaling king’s train and add it to their own).

Your readers don’t need to see the minute details, but what they need to see is the finished product. When most people wake up, they get dressed and shower. You don’t need to show readers this; they trust your characters had to urinate and used toilet paper, or maybe even a wet wipe. And washed.

The point of the last two paragraphs is to warn you not to get focused and fixated on minutiae (trivial details) when they’re IN THE MIDDLE OF A WAR AND GUNSHOTS ARE BLARING PAST THEM, CANNONS JUST TOOK OUT THEIR VOLVO, AND THE MAN RIGHT NEXT TO MC CAUGHT A LEAD BULLET WITH HIS TEETH WITHOUT ANY OF THEM CHIPPING, TALK ABOUT HARDCORE!

The final point of the last three paragraphs: prepare your readers with what they should expect to see, and then show them the final product (not the process!). The MC is tasked with digging a quarry. Then, the hole in the quarry was deeper than anyone else’s. We don’t need to see his routine EVERY day until he completes his task. Unless that’s the point of the book.

Freshness.

Give your readers movement, or something new in every chapter, so they don’t feel like they’re rereading the previous one. Why do many agents pass on a book? Because the story sounds identical to another without enough differentiation. Why would a reader stop reading? Because each chapter is the same as the last and nothing has happened.

Ending is everything.

End your chapters STRONG. A good amount of them should be cliffhangers that leave your reader thumbing through pages all night without realizing it until the blue hints of sunlight stain the morning sky.

Or, end the chapter in a spot that makes the reader take a breath, a satisfied sigh, triumph.

Don’t end your chapter in an odd place, or in the middle of a scene, leaving readers feeling confused and irritated. Because readers are naturally irritable people.

Satisfying, believable actions.

It’s like having the stereotypical blond trip over nothing when she’s running away, or doesn’t look where she’s running and smashes her skull into some obvious object, or refusing to shoot the man who has a knife to her dog’s throat (I pity d foo who’d put a knife to my dog’s throat). Give your readers something they can gobble up, not something they’d spit out.

Make your story and dialog believable. Or, at the very least, plausible (think Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock The Proposal). There are times where believability is OK to be shattered—IF it fits with the character or story and is done right. Because if it doesn’t fit or isn’t done right, then it is both unbelievable, and unacceptable.

Humor is okay.

Keep humor in your story, but only if you’re good at it. I can’t tell funny jokes, and by the time I construct a brilliant comeback, the chance to deliver it is three weeks gone. However, my characters somehow excel here. Sometimes. Other characters are naturally unfunny.

The bottom line.

Avoid monotony, know the overall point of your story, don’t spend pages on insignificant scenes or detail, give your readers something fresh to consider, make sure your request to suspend disbelief is reasonable, be concise and—the advice I always, Always, ALWAYS recommend—write for yourself but edit for your readers. You may wish to indulge in minutiae because it’s important to you, but your readers don’t need the distraction. Use it like salt, not like water.

All about Imagery

All about Imagery

all-about-imageryImagery is an important part of setting, which is one of the 5 elements of a story.

Imagery is one of the most powerful tools you as a writer can use to submerse your readers into your characters’ world. However, this tool is often overlooked.

Take painters, for example. They tell stories with a single image.

Some artists paint pictures of flowers or people having lunch on a forest floor, whereas others prefer the shocking portrayal of a dead man in a melting universe.

Some artists paint landscapes with sharp images of vivid pinks contrasting against deep blacks. Others prefer pastel colors.

Even brushstrokes play a significant role in depicting their world.

Writers are artists. We tell stories with words rather than literal colors, but it is so important for us to paint the full picture and to focus on all five senses.

When a cop shows up at a crime scene, the first thing he senses is the rotting stench of decaying flesh. They almost always smell it before they see it. So, when writing about crime scenes, let your readers smell what the character smells.

If your main character cuts someone’s throat, describe the soft gurgle of the man choking on his own blood.

A sunset is rarely just one color. Especially if there’s pollution.

Surely there’s more than a sharp feeling when accidentally cutting a finger.

What about the bitter flavor of ammonia forced down the throat of a captive?

Many descriptions focus on sight, some focus on sound and a select few focus on touch, but the two other senses—taste and smell—are often overlooked. Paint. That. Picture.

And, like a painter, your style of description will be different than your colleagues’. Their audience won’t always be the same as yours, their tastes may not be the same as yours, their focus is likely to differ from yours. And that’s okay.

Some people write stories where no true evil exists. Others prefer drama, a handful will spelunk into the darkness of humanity. Some focus on spirituality, and others will build all new worlds. Find your place, take it proudly. Only one person can write your story. But whatever you do, don’t skimp on important imagery, and don’t infodump on the unnecessary.

Styles Differ and It’s Okay

Styles Differ and It’s Okay

lighthouse-816546_960_720So, you’ve written a great novel, you love the voice, but then you read someone else’s and realize how terrible yours is. Or, is it?

It’s so easy to compare your story to someone else’s and feel that theirs was so brilliantly written whereas yours doesn’t compare. But, why do we do this to ourselves?

Books are just like paintings. They depict a story, sure, but each style is so different than the next. And that’s okay.

Take the realistic Mona Lisa, for example. Millions of people love the simplicity and accurate nature. It’s straight forward and needs no decoding to understand. I’d say its literary equivalent would be general fiction.

But not all paintings are meant to be accurate portrayals. Think of the surreal painting The Persistence of Memory. What is that painter saying? I almost equate this to satire or absurdity.

What about impressionist painting The Starry Night? So much fluidity and movement. I compare these to science fiction and fantasy because such an emphasis is placed on the environment, which is important to build in these genres. I also compare it to retellings, because the painters take what they’re given and recreate it in a way that’s special to them.

Some are abstract and welcome discussion, a few are violent. The Scream is downright horrifying.

People who like the peace of Mona Lisa won’t exactly care for the violent image in Massacre of the Innocents. So, if you’ve written a Mona, and read someone’s Massacre, you’ve got to keep in mind that, yes, while it evokes strong imagery and emotion, its audience is not the same as yours, and does not mean yours is lacking.

If your prose is strong, your images are on point and your writing is as tight as it needs to be, then don’t worry about comparing your novels.

If, however, your prose is on the weak side, your images are uninspired and your writing is either so tight, characterization suffers or so loose that you say the same thing eight times in a chapter, then find a writing group and adjust these issues.

According to Google, there are almost 130 million books out there, and most have found an audience.

If you’ve written a great book but don’t feel it’s as jarring as another, don’t worry. Write what’s appropriate to YOUR story and YOUR category and YOUR genre and YOUR style. Only Stephen King can get away with writing like Stephen King. Be the next you.

Avoiding the Infodump

Avoiding the Infodump

workshop-746539_960_720So, you read about infodumps, and now you want ideas on how to avoid them? Great.

This list is NOT all inclusive, but it’s a start.

Break up the characters.

Do you need to introduce more than one or two at a time? Sometimes you do, and that’s fine. But when you do…

Give appropriate information.

I read a published novel, and every time the author introduced a character, she gave the dossier—name, approximate age, height and weight.

This can be relevant if you’re dealing with aliens or fantastical races, but if you’re dealing with humans, the information can be introduced later at more appropriate times.

Instead of saying, the woman was about five-foot one and a hundred and fifty pounds, describe the scar across her face, or the fight that left her limping for the rest of her life. This gives your characters dimension—she’s more than her height and weight.

Describe organically.

In other words, let it just be natural.

When people meet someone for the first time, they may notice height and weight, but they notice other things, too. Voice, smile, teeth, eyes, nose, ESPECIALLY when these characteristics are abnormal. You can have ten underweight characters, but only one of them will have a voice poisoned by a lifetime of cigarettes.

Delete what doesn’t belong.

I said it before—I don’t care about where a cashier got her tattoo unless it adds to the plot (a place being investigated for using pig’s blood as pigment, or illegal/governmental/cult branding). Otherwise, yeah, I don’t care.

Choose better descriptions.

Instead of saying a chair lay on its side after a ruckus, you can say overturned chair. Instead of saying, a yellow bucket chair with brown stripes and a green outline of a naked woman, a seashell lamp, and a red and black plaid couch, you can say, the seventies called and want their furniture back.

Some precise descriptions are fun to write and fun to read, but you’ve got to know when and where.

Avoid repetition.

Okay, remember the published book that introduced each character by the dossier? Yep, by the third character, I skipped lines until the moment where I just stopped reading altogether.

This is a dangerous position to put a reader in. She is an established writer with a loyal fan base, and while she “earned the right to publish newbie no-nos” in theory, it may have cost her part of her existing readership, as well as any future newcomers who haven’t read the other titles that won her audience. My point is not to tear the writer down, but to tell you, dear aspiring/established author, how you can best keep my (and other first-time readers’) attention.

Scatter the info.

Remember in infodump where you walked into my cabin and found out everything there was to know about it in that one scene?

Welp, I listened to my critique partner. She didn’t need to see the brown micro fiber loveseat by the fireplace, or the curved leather couch with entertainment system in the den, the kitchen sink, or the study.

My MC will eventually sit on the couch. She can touch the micro fiber then. Or drop a glass in the one-basin sink.

Be concise.

You’ve got 5 men. One plowed fields his entire life, another diagnoses anything from flus to hemorrhoids, the third breeds a healthy strain of livestock, the fourth makes so many calculations in a day, he doesn’t need a calculator and the fifth likes cookies and milk and the color red.

You’ve got 5 men. An agriculturalist, a doctor, a farmer, an accountant and Santa. (And a reader who wasn’t tempted to skim.)

A red-and-white-striped peppermint candy. Uh, you mean a candy cane?

There are clever ways of describing something, but sometimes it’s better to keep it simple. Know when to be clever and know when your readers will only cross their eyes in confusion.

Be clever when you’ve already used the word on the page, be concise if your word count is pushing 110,000.

And for the love of everyone subjected to the story, do NOT get clever to boost word count. Word count should be focused on pretty words that move plot and characterization forward, not scarce plot and characterization held together by the skimpy fabric of pretty (but empty) words plastered in between.

Get another opinion.

Ask a friend to read your work. This person doesn’t need to be a professional editor or critic, this person just has to be a reader. After all, readers buy the book, and liking a novel or hating one requires no expertise at all. People who read a lot know when things feel forced or unnatural, when something isn’t clear, when there’s too much or too little information, or when they’re bored. A good reader who gives honest feedback is one of the best things you can have in your literary arsenal.

Infodump

Infodump

stress-543658_960_720So, you’re reading a great passage and really like the writing. You’re eager to get to the second paragraph, and then it happens. So. Many. Details.

Perhaps too many characters are introduced at a time and the focus is on the wrong descriptions, leaving nothing tangible for the reader to remember the character by.

Or maybe there are too many things in a room, a paragraph-long sentence describing the flashing of Christmas lights, or backstory on characters who readers will never see again.

These things, dear people, are called infodumps.

I had a friend go through my first few chapters, and that was one thing she dinged me on. I described a whole cabin from front to back. The layout was important for the novel, but given all at once, NO ONE is going to remember it all. Glad she pointed that out.

So, I changed my tactic. I gave details slowly. Anything I wanted people to remember had to be given in increments.

Even though talking about crossing through the study to get to the den was an important detail for a later scene, the things IN the study, though also relevant later in the book, weren’t important to include at that time.

If you present a big chunk of information (or a small chunk of highly detailed information) to establish a character or setting, you risk giving your readers flashbacks of their ex’s family reunion–they’re going to be overwhelmed and need a break.

Don’t do that to your readers because nothing makes someone skim faster than too much info, especially when it’s irrelevant.

Check out avoiding the infodump for a few ideas on how to present information without overwhelming your reader.

Don’t Query a Story With the Subplot

Don’t Query a Story With the Subplot

One of the biggest mistakes new authors and those in the writing community make, especially in regards to queries, is mistaking the subplot for the plot.

For the purposes of simplicity, I’m referring to narratives in which there are one or two main characters, rather than (mosaic) narratives with ensemble casts, which is a beast in and of itself.

The plot is the main sequence of events that create the core of the story. It overshadows all subplots, and can (but doesn’t always) tie the subplots together.

The subplot is the secondary sequence of events that adds dynamic to the main plot, but is not the main plot, itself. In action-driven novels, this can be a smaller sequence of actions that increase the stakes of the main plot (the illness of a family member which causes the villain to rob a bank), it can also be a love interest, the relationship between a villain and his mother, a bully and his own abuser, a cop and a criminal, so on and so forth. In a character-driven story, the subplot can be the physical movement of the story, other relationships, the introduction or abolition of a marginalizing law, so on and so forth.

Authors are conditioned to believe that the plot revolves around physical movement. This is true for action-driven stories, however, applying this train of thought as a blanket statement to all stories would be a disservice to the character-driven ones.

In being part of a writing community where aspiring authors offer their queries for critique, I have seen many a comment suggesting that various stories had a weak plot because the commentators mistook the chain reaction of physical events for the plot. I’ve also seen comments suggesting the plot had holes, or was superficial at best.

So what did the writers do? They rewrote their queries to showcase the physical movement of the story. Why is this a blunder? Because you’ll query your Romance as a thriller with a love interest. You’ll shop your narrative of grief as a crime novel. You’ll hook an agent with your coming-of-age by the promise of an epic fantasy it’ll never live up to, or repulse an agent who would have otherwise gobbled up your story of overcoming addiction because you presented it as a Whodunnit.

I have seen non-Romance writers critique a query and say there was too much emotion and not enough “plot.” It begs the question, what then, is the plot of a Romance? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not to watch the two lovers fix up the inn that brought them together.)

It’s very tempting to create a query out of the action sequence of a story, but this is a no-no, especially when that sequence only serves as the subplot. Those who are unfamiliar with your genre will oftentimes revert to highlighting the action sequence of your story because this is what the forums (which are invaluable for authors) taught them to do.

The best thing any querying author can do is know what your story is about (theme). Once you narrow down your genre, find other authors/readers who know that genre inside and out and ask them to take a look at your query/synopsis/sample/novel first.

Your beta reader doesn’t always have to read or write in your genre, but the ideal critique partner should. If you’re new and get all your advice from someone unfamiliar with your genre who’s taught to draw out “the action,” their influence just may turn your narrative of dealing with depression into a true horror story.

Character Vs. Action-Driven Stories

Character Vs. Action-Driven Stories

All stories have a plot, but not all plots are driven by the same thing. What’s the difference? The conflict.

Stories that focus on an external conflict are action driven (often called “plot”-driven), and stories that focus on an internal conflict are character driven.

Many character-driven novels have some action, and many action-driven novels have some character growth. But how does one know which is which?

A friend of mine told me this, and I’m passing it on to you (with permission).

Consider a story that starts with a character who wants something they can’t have. That’s the overarching story element that’s the last thing to be resolved. This is why so many romances end with a marriage, for instance.

Contrast that to a story which starts with a problem that MUST be solved—like a terrorist has taken control of a school and they have a kindergarten full of hostages.

That’s a great starting point. There are a few other methods that might help narrow this down, so let’s keep going.

Another way to identify if your piece is character or action-driven is to identify the main conflict. Is it internal, or external?

Consider this. One can build a home externally (with bricks, boards and nails), or one can build a home internally (with love and compassion). One can get the girl externally (physically retrieve her), or one can get the girl internally (win her heart). What main course of action *must* our hero(ine) accomplish by the end? Defeat/complete something external, or overcome/change/accept something internal?

Identifying the main conflict can be difficult for some (especially MG and YA novels where characters often grow as well as defeat a foe). So, if you’re unsure about which takes precedence (the growth or the defeat), try deciding whether the protagonist changes the story dramatically.

To do this, first exchange the protagonists with someone else who has a different *in my Liam Neeson voice* set of skills/color/gender/race/religion/confidence. If this significantly changes the conflict/issue our hero faces, then it’s likely a character-driven novel. If the conflict is relatively the same, then exchange the protagonist/locale. If this changes the storyline, then you likely have an action-driven novel.

Take Castaway, for example. The plot in this character-driven story is about an unprepared castaway who must battle depression and hopelessness and learn how to survive. Sure, a plane went down and he’s building stuff (subplot), but the main conflict is within himself. The bulk of the story shows him conquering his own shortcomings (learning how to make a fire, hunt, build, overcome loneliness and depression, find a will to survive etc). And then he gets off that island. *He* must change before his circumstance can.

Now, imagine if survivalist expert Bear Grylls were marooned on an island. What would the plot look like then? Definitely not the same because he knows how to survive in such an environment. So, I’d expect an external conflict in this story—maybe there are aliens on this island and they keep taking his rafts. Maybe the island is alive and absorbs human visitors to power itself. (Or, perhaps it’s simply a prescriptive nonfiction piece.)

Now, take an action-driven story—Jaws, for instance. If you replaced the protagonist with someone else, the conflict would be relatively the same—a shark is terrorizing the beach and someone must stop it. It doesn’t matter whether Jeremy Wade or Batman is the protagonist, the narrative will remain relatively the same, and the characters will likely do minimal growth because the battle is external. Since changing the protagonist in the story does not change the conflict, go a step further and change the shark to an alligator or a penguin, or set the story in a volcano. The storyline would be vastly different in the level of threat and the manner in which it is addressed.

This helps you narrow down the focus of the novel—are we watching a person or a relationship change, or are we watching a threat become neutralized?

In addition to identifying the main conflict and/or the impact of exchanging protagonists, you can also try to identify the antagonist. In a character-driven narrative, the focus of the story is usually a character changing himself or his relationships (internal conflict). In an action-driven narrative, the focus of the story is usually a character overcoming his physical surroundings (external conflict). Therefore, the antagonist of an action-driven novel is usually someone else (a bad guy, predatory animals, a live forest trying to kill MC, etc), whereas the antagonist in a character-driven novel is oftentimes (*but not always*) the protagonist, himself.

I’d expect character development (and maybe a bit of growth) in an action-driven narrative, and I’d expect some sort of action in a character-driven narrative, but the point in the distinction is the main focus. Determining the focus of the narrative can also help you decide whether it’s character or action-driven.

In conclusion, most stories have both action and character with the emphasis on one over the other. If the main point is to watch the protagonist grow and change in himself or his relationships, then we’ve likely got a character-driven story. If the main point is to watch the series of physical events unfold, then we’ve likely got an action-driven story.

Character-Driven Stories Are Not Plotless

Character-Driven Stories Are Not Plotless

New novelists of character-driven narratives have a difficult time writing queries because most authors are conditioned to focus on the external conflict of a story.

When these novelists present their queries, they’re pressured to plug it into a format that showcases a series of physical events. But, what happens when the main events that move the plot forward are all internal? They’re dinged for having “no plot.”

This is far from the truth—the plot is strong and present, it’s just not driven by action.

Before moving forward, let us define plot. Plot is the main chain-reaction series of events that create the core of a story. These events can either be external (physical) or internal (mental).

Compared to the size of the novel, there’s very little physical movement or action in The Shining. However, when you look at character development and growth, it’s quite apparent that the focus of the story isn’t the sequence of actions the characters take in order to escape the hotel, but on watching Jack Torrance become unhinged and fall even deeper into his alcoholism before succumbing to his demons, so to speak.

Do things happen in the story? Sure, they go to the hotel, he starts seeing things, Danny is chased, the previous cook returns to help, Wendy tries to protect her son, then the hotel blows up. However, those are things that happen in the subplot, they’re not the Plot.

This is an example of how an action-driven sequence serves as the subplot in a character-driven novel.

Character-driven themes include but are not limited to:

The relationship between one person and something else, such as:

  • another person (friendship, romance, a family rift, superior/subordinate/authority)
  • a pet (a boy and his dog, a girl and her cat)
  • an item (hoarding, the last thing a child made for its mother before passing away,a man’s refusal to sell the house he and his now-deceased wife built together)
  • a social construct (ageism, racism, sexism, ableism, unjust laws)
  • alcohol/substances (substance abuse, alcoholism, a strict aversion to it all)
  • religion (struggling with, finding, or accepting Main Character’s own or someone else’s faith)
  • environment (escaping the “fate” of fatherless boys in a crime-ridden community)
  • coming of age

Themes where the relationship is with oneself include but are not limited to:

  • coming of age           
  • overcoming addiction/OCD/trauma/Main Character’s own prejudice/ism           
  • grief           
  • introspection           
  • learning to love oneself          
  • learning to forgive (betrayal, framed by a friend/cop)        
  • coming out of one’s shell perseverance and endurance (finding the mental strength to keep going/trying again when exhausted, injured and lost in the wilderness/snow storm, keeping up morale as a prisoner or war, clinging to hope when wrongfully convicted)

Characters who are both the protagonist and the antagonist usually grow to the point of becoming someone completely new because the obstacle they overcome is within themselves.

In conclusion, a character-driven story is not a plotless story, nor does it lack in plot, because the character growth is the plot. Consider Blindside, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Boy Meets World, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple, or Forrest Gump. These stories have nothing but Plot.

So, if you’re a new author of character-driven stories, don’t be shy to showcase your characters in all their messy, dramatic glory, and don’t allow others to “edit” your query into a high-octane-something that it isn’t.

If you’re a veteran critique-giver of action-driven narratives and a query comes across your desk that focuses on the characters, don’t assume it’s plotless; consider that perhaps it is the characters who drive the story, and help the author make that internal conflict shine.