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.

The Misleading Nature of a “Plot”-Driven Story

The Misleading Nature of a “Plot”-Driven Story

Plot is one of the 5 elements of a story (the plot, the setting, the theme, the style and the characters).

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.

What is Backstory?

What is Backstory?

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This picture says it all—it’s a snapshot into history. Backstory is information given about something that happened in the story’s past.

It often helps readers know a little more about a situation, and it lets writers tell instead of show (though backstory doesn’t necessarily have to be tell). Bear in mind that good writing is neither all tell nor all show, but strikes a balance in between.

A few ways to convey backstory are verb tenses, key words, thoughts, dialogue and flashbacks.

Need some examples?

These examples are found at the bottom of my article How to Develop Voice.

Dean didn’t know the milk had turned until the first swig—for after a terrible accident three years ago, his nose no longer detected the spoiled stench of rotting food.

I stood at the edge of the darkened forest, peering inside. My body hesitated before squeezing between the pines and oaks… What sounded like The Necrofaire howled in the distance, hungry to kill again. Why did I let them talk me into believing this was a good idea?

The MC’s thought (the question) is backstory if readers didn’t see her friends dare her.

Another example is,

And then there’s Ben. My best friend since the second grade.

If dialogue is used to convey backstory, it should be purposeful and move the plot forward. (Do NOT use “As you know, Bob,” dialogue).

“Chan, you knew I’d broken my back, why would you say I was faking?”

“As you know, Bob, your wife has two kids.”

Flashbacks can show backstory rather than tell it. Only use flashbacks if they work.

Basically, backstory lets you know about something that happened before the plot of the novel takes place. If the novel is in present tense, the backstory is (usually) in past. If the novel is in past tense, the backstory is (usually) in past perfect. It can be shown with flashbacks, revealed through dialogue, exposed in thoughts or attached to key words like originally, when, another, before… My examples’ key words are after, no longer, again and since.

Backstory has its place, it adds dimension to the characters and their relationships, it solidifies certain events, and is quite integral to most works. It can be overdone, but is a powerful tool when used properly.

A Query Must Stand Out

A Query Must Stand Out

a-query-must-stand-out

If you’re reading this, then more than likely you’re preparing a query or critiquing someone else’s. If you’re doing your research before sending one out, well done. This post is dedicated to you, and to giving ideas that may help you improve your query (or someone else’s).

Your query has to stand out.

Have you ever perused Netflix or Hulu, read a description and thought, hmm, this sounds like ____?

Have you ever read a query and thought, hmm, this query sounds just like ____ written by _____ ?

If you change the name of the protagonist or antagonist, and the query describes another book, well, then it doesn’t stand out enough.

Examples?

Newly-turned, flying vampires flee the ones who made them. Trapped and with nowhere else to run, they must take a final stand to be free once and for all. Are you talking about Interview with the Vampire or The Lost Boys?

Doctors rush to save lives in an emergency room while dealing with the crises in their own. If these physicians can’t juggle both, their patients will pay with their lives. Are you talking about ER or Grey’s Anatomy?

Make your dilemma and your stakes unique to the book.

How do I fix this?

Focus on the problems specific to this character. Bring what makes your story new or unique to the foreground and let the standard “wizard who” fall to the background.

Don’t be afraid to let your hero shine in the query the same way s/he shines in the book. Your hero may be a wizarding vampire scientist, but that’s not all there is to him/her. Blade is a vampire who hunts vampires. WOW, interested. Harry is the only person Voldemort can’t kill. 0.0

The point is, there’s more to these characters that can be SO interesting, their traits alone might make someone want to read.

Don’t devalue your characters.

They’ve got something the world would love. Gregory House is a self-destructive drug addict who’s brilliance has saved more lives than he cares to count.

If your plot/setting has been overdone…

Make your character shine. Show that, though the idea/plot isn’t unique, these characters are.

Remember, just because an agent passed doesn’t mean the query’s bad, and just because an agent requested doesn’t mean the query’s good (the pages may have gotten the request, not the query). Always get a second, third and fourth pair of eyes on it, especially if it’s the only thing you’re allowed to send in your submission.

The Don’ts of Writing

The Don’ts of Writing

 

 

 

 

Don’t get bogged down in detail if it doesn’t matter. Rather, focus on huge things that do.

If you’re needing to increase word count, don’t change verbs from past tense to past perfect (had gone, had ended). There’s a time and a place, but if past works just fine, your readers will notice and will be annoyed.

Don’t always tell. Take the time to paint the picture. If you don’t, it might seem like an afterthought.

Don’t always show, but show more than you tell.

Don’t give up just because people don’t like your work. Not everyone’s going to like it, but if you stop, then the people who will like it will never see it.

Don’t be too discouraged, and don’t stop believing in yourself. Some people are born to write. Some work hard to get where they need to be. Some… are just in denial, and may or may never come around.

Don’t fret over rejections. A friend of mine and I would click on a link showing how many rejections Steven King, JK Rowling, and many other famous writers received. Find a link giving that info and click it when you’re down. But don’t expect to become the next Stephen King. Expect to become the next YOU.

Don’t quit your day job if you have one. Writing is hard work, and sometimes it takes a while to succeed. But once you make it and can afford to quit, feel free—writing will become your new full-time job.

Don’t get jealous when the people around you land contracts left and right. Okay, get a little jealous, but be genuinely happy for them. When it’s your turn, you’ll want someone to bounce off the walls with you.

Don’t stop writing.

Don’t let two days go by where you don’t write (if it’s within your power, write as often as you can). But, know your limits and take a few days if you need to. Proofreading and editing count as writing.

Don’t query as soon as you’ve written a project. Edit, critique partners, edit, beta readers. In my case, edit, edit, edit, critique, edit, final read.

Don’t edit the book you JUST wrote. Let it sit at least a week or two.

Don’t make readers get personal with characters they’ll never see again. Not every character needs a dossier of traumatic or empowering life events. UNLESS this person’s scar is exposing something that’s pertinent to the plot. (Say, the government, at one point, used to brand people. A cashier can have the brand. But if an old friend did it in high school when they were drunk, then it’s useless information that’s taking up precious word count space.)

Don’t assume everyone’s going to like the book. Not everyone likes pistachios (blasphemy), not everyone likes cherries (blasphemy) and not everyone likes chocolate milk (double blasphemy). And that’s okay.

Don’t assume your writing doesn’t have to change. It might.

Don’t be the only one with eyes on it. Find people who will tell you the truth about your sample and listen to what they say.

 

The Don’ts of Rejection

The Don’ts of Rejection

Don’t respond negatively. Take a breath, eat some biscuits, delete the e-mail.

Don’t write back asking why not.

Don’t write back asking for a referral.

Don’t be surprised when you get rejections.

Don’t be discouraged.

Don’t bash the agent, especially not online. Sharing your experience with your peers in an appropriate manner is not the same as bashing.

Don’t take it personally.

Don’t stop writing.

Don’t stop querying.

The Don’ts of Queries

The Don’ts of Queries

Don’t query an agent that doesn’t represent your genre/category.

Don’t query an agent that is closed to queries.

Don’t send it without a critique.

Don’t ask, “Would you like to read more?” A query letter already implies this by nature.

Don’t include irrelevant information (especially not in the mini synopsis).

Don’t talk about yourself more than you talk about the book (short bio).

Don’t be rude, sexist, racist, or any other offensive “ist.”

Don’t shop more than one project to an agent at the same time. Wait for a response to your first query, and then submit the next.

Don’t pitch more than one book within the same letter. Remember, one query letter (email, submissions form, envelope) per book.

Don’t query every agent alive at the same time.

Don’t CC, BC or any other C in which you’re mass mailing a query.

Don’t put yourself down. Professional people do not do this.

Don’t put other writers down, or bash their books *especially published ones. Professional people do not do this.

Don’t use colloquialisms, regional vernacular, or improper word usage, spelling or grammar when addressing the agent. Hey, what’s up? I hopped across your page and decided to holla and hitchu up with one of my fave queries. It’s totes awesome.

Don’t forget to personalize.

Don’t be too chummy.

Don’t be afraid to succeed.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Don’t waste your evening reading this—go query someone.

How to fix a query

How to fix a query

how to fix a query So you got rejected a lot, huh? So none of the feedback was glorious?

That’s okay, you can fix this. Check out how to write a query to get the basics. Now let’s get to it.

Figure out what your book is about.

Who is the main character, and what is his goal? Who/what is preventing him from obtaining that goal, and what now must he do to get back on track?

Go to writing websites and read query critique comments.

What information are they suggesting to change, add, delete?

Look at the first version of the query in question, and then the second version. Read every version until you get to the last. Whatever information didn’t make it is likely useless.

Come back to your query and apply those suggestions, while bearing in mind that some suggestions are genre and category specific (specifying age, gender, love interest, world/planet, race/species, religion…). Decide what’s pertinent and drop what isn’t.

Think about how much to give.

Find the sweet spot between vague and too specific. Immerse readers in the setting without building the world.

Consider the stakes and make us care.

It’s so easy to make the stakes SUPER HIGH. If Katniss doesn’t fight Snow, the districts will crumble. If the rest of the query worked its magic, I’d care about the districts. Or I’d think, “Oh, another save the world idea,” (and there’s nothing wrong with those if the mini synopsis works).

But why does the MC have to be everybody’s hero?

Consider.

  1. If Katniss doesn’t fight Snow, she won’t get the satisfaction of seeing his defeat.
  2. If Katniss doesn’t fight Snow, he’ll not only have wiped out her district, but he’ll get away with it.
  3. With everything to lose, Katniss must decide if she’ll back down or take her chances.

Okay, those aren’t the best examples, but I care a little more when it’s personal. Think of the themes above. 1. Revenge. 2. I want to see someone stop him. 3. Personal risk.

Again, if yours is a save the world story, then let it be. But if and where you can, let the stakes affect the hero’s personal life. At this point, I don’t care about districts crumbling, I care about Katniss’s beef with Snow. Voldemort enslaves humanity? Don’t care. Can Harry escape his wrath? Intrigued.

Get eyes on the query.

Ask if people would read the book based on it, and ask people who’ve written one to critique it.

How to Write a Query

How to Write a Query

how to write a query

First, check out what is a query letter to get the basics.

These are pointers I’ve given in forums before. Without much further ado…

Check out other queries.

Do a search on successful queries and note which ones interested you. Note the pace, word choice, length, etc. Then apply that insight to your mini synopsis. Bear in mind that Your query is NOT those queries, your book is NOT those books, and your voice is NOT their voice. Be you on a page. Write in the voice of YOUR book.

There are a lot of writing websites with query critiques. It’s worth a glance to see what got flagged. Also, search for QueryShark and get VERY familiar with the site.

***When checking out “successful queries,” keep in mind that some agents hate the query but love the pages, or love the query but hate the pages. Just because a query was present in the letter that landed the agent doesn’t necessarily mean it worked. Therefore, to get a broader sense of a “working” query, read at least ten.***

Start with the first inciting incident.

Inciting incident is a fancy way of asking, what event throws the main character (protagonist) into action? Usually it happens within the first fifty pages. Depending on your book, it might start later.

Apply the formula.

First paragraph: the hook. Who is your MC and what happened to throw his/her life out of whack? Make it interesting.

Paragraph 2 (and/or 3): the development. Further explain the conflict/issue. You might introduce the antagonist here or in the hook, or not at all (not all queries have one). Keep in mind, this isn’t a place for backstory. Make it riveting.

Last paragraph: what I call the closing hook. AKA, the stakes. What is MC’s task, and what awful thing will happen to MC if MC does not complete his/her task? Make it powerful, make it intriguing.

Let it sit for a few days.

Then read it. If you pause to reread a sentence, then that sentence needs to be rewritten.

Have someone read it.

No, I don’t mean just anyone. Someone who knows queries intimately. Other writers, agents who’re offering, someone with expertise. Wait a day or two to mull it over, go back to their suggestions and apply which ones you agree with. In that day, you might find that you actually agree when you didn’t at first.

Send it to a few agents.

Then send it to a few more. If you get a certain number of rejections (how many is your choice), then either the pages are the problem, or the query. You might consider fixing your query.

 

This is just a little advice on where to start. Keep researching until you feel you’ve got a great grasp on the whole picture. And, READ QUERY CRITIQUES!!! Read the original query, read the comments, read the final query. Read everything. When you see how it transformed, what got flagged, and word choice, you’ll save precious time and avoid a self-induced head slap.

 

What is a query letter?

What is a query letter?

what is a query

What is a query letter?

Only the most important ±250 words you’ll ever write for your book (if you’re trying to get an agent).

A “query” can be defined as “a question.” So a query letter is a letter that poses the question, “Would you like to read more?” By nature, the query letter implies the question, so you don’t have to ask it.

A query letter consists of a greeting, a mini synopsis (DO NOT CONFUSE THIS WITH A REGULAR SYNOPSIS), a relevant biography and a Title/Genre/Word count paragraph. Some writers also include target audience.

A lot of people think the query letter is just the mini synopsis and skip sending the relevant biography, so some agents specify they want the bio as well.

Some queries have a one paragraph mini synopsis. Other queries have a 3-5 paragraph mini synopsis.

What matters is that the protagonist (main character) and his problem are presented. Basically, the major plot point. Sometimes this means introducing the antagonist as well, but not all queries have them.

Pick up a book, look at the back. There’s a short description for the main crux of the story. Its only point in life is to make you want to read more. That’s what a query should do—give the agent just enough information to care, but not enough to know how it ends.

QUERIES DO NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING!

Visit how to write a query for a little advice.