Do You Know What Drives Your Story’s Narrative?
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At the heart of every good story is an arc, a series of related events that compels the reader to engage with the narrative.
Sometimes, that arc is one of external thrills and escapades. Will they catch the killer? Will she break the curse? Other times, that arc is one of inner turmoil or transformation. Will his pride lead to eventual downfall? Will she find it in her heart to forgive? Certainly, both types of arcs can be present in a story. But ultimately, only one can serve as the driving force behind its narrative.
As writers, why is it important to understand which arc lies at the heart of our stories? Let’s examine the difference between plot-driven and character-driven narratives today on the blog.
Understanding plot and character arcs…
Also called storylines or plotlines, arcs are the big-picture threads that pull readers from cover to cover, and they can present themselves in many shapes and sizes. Though one arc serves as the main storyline in most narratives, subplots and related storylines are also arcs in their own right, meaning more than one arc can appear in a story and often does.
What defines a series of events as an arc is the question that threads through each of them. Will he catch the killer? Will she find forgiveness? So long as the series of events works to answer that question in some form, you have an arc on your hands. Meanwhile, it’s the nature of that question that defines a storyline as being either a plot arc or character arc.
Plot arcs follow a particular character or cast of characters as they work to achieve an external goal, such as the catching of a killer or the destroying of an all-powerful object. Character arcs, on the other hand, explore a character’s internal development (typically concerning a particular struggle), as they wrestle with a series of events.
We talked in far more depth about crafting plot arcs and character arcs in these linked articles. Today, however, we’re going to discuss the importance of understanding which of these arcs lies at the hearts of our stories.
The driving force behind our narratives…
Most stories can be boiled down to a single question. Will Katniss survive The Hunger Games? Will Darcy and Elizabeth relinquish their follies in time to fall in love? This question represents the core arc of a story, the series of events that drives the narrative forward.
If that question concerns a physical or external goal, such as Katniss’s fight to survive The Hunger Games, then that story can be defined as plot-driven. Character-driven stories, on the other hand, feature core arcs that interrogate questions of a more internal nature.
Understanding whether your own story is driven by character or plot can have a major impact on your work.
It’s a common misconception that character-driven stories are inherently literary in nature while plot-driven stories belong solely to the realm of genre fiction. Combined with the holier-than-thou attitude often applied to literary fiction, plot-driven stories are frequently derided as commercial drivel or mere entertainment, creating a marked disparity between these two types of stories.
This sort of dichotomous labeling can lead to anxiety among authors. I’ve seen writers worry that their stories aren’t literary enough to receive critical notice, and I’ve seen writers fear that their stories don’t contain enough heart-pounding suspense to become commercial successes. I’ve also seen writers struggle to fit their stories into boxes in which they don’t belong.
These fears aren’t going away overnight, of course, but breaking down these common misconceptions about plot- and character-driven narratives can help writers gain the confidence they need to tell the very best versions of their stories. Many books have already helped blur the lines between critical and commercial success, and I can think of no better example than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Are plot & character development two sides of the same coin?
J.R.R. Tolkien is often called the father of modern fantasy. His wildly successful books, including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, helped revitalize the genre in the 20th century, paving the road for countless fantasy authors to come, myself included.
With work so well-steeped in a particular genre, it’d be easy to assume that Tolkien’s stories are plot-driven commercial successes. Yet I’d argue that The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit are actually driven by opposing forces.
At the heart of Tolkien’s most popular work lies the question of Frodo’s ability to save Middle Earth by destroying the One Ring, a physical goal that plainly makes The Lord of The Rings a plot-driven story. Yet The Hobbit isn’t so straightforward. Bilbo may face a series of monsters and mayhem as he journeys with Thorin’s company, but the dwarves’ goal isn’t necessarily his own.
Despite the allure of promised riches, it isn’t the desire for wealth that drives Bilbo beyond the confines of the Shire. It’s his desire for adventure, a sense of wonderment he’s always been too cowardly to pursue. Given a push from Gandalf, Bilbo sets out from his front door in search of one thing in particular: his courage.
Though the story may at first seem like an adventure in dragon-slaying and treasure-taking, it isn’t these events that occur at the story’s climax. With the Arkenstone in hand, Bilbo must choose whether to do what is right despite the betrayal that choice would entail and the uncertainty that following through would prevent the war to come. It’s a personal choice, not a question of physical achievement.
With this framing in mind, The Hobbit isn’t the plot-driven adventure it first appears. Even Tolkien referred to the book as “a fairy-story,” a genre famous for its internal exploration and moralizing. By that same token, I would argue that nearly all Hero’s Journey stories hinge upon their protagonists’ inner transformations rather than the outer quest, despite being genre fiction stories.
In any case, the line between plot- and character-driven stories isn’t as clear as defining a book as either literary or genre fiction. Plot drives character and character drives plot, the two as inseparable in a good story as two sides of the same coin. But most coins land on either heads or tales, and I’d bet your story does as well.
With that in mind, how can you identify which arc drives your story’s narrative? And why does it matter in the first place?
The benefits of working with intention…
Character-driven stories often interrogate, inspire, or provide insight while plot-driven stories entertain and provide escape. Some books even excel at doing both, though they’re in no way any more legitimate than those that favor either extreme.
In any case, plot-driven stories are designed to reach a specific audience, one different from those who prefer character-driven stories, regardless of readers who enjoy both. Thus, understanding what drives the heart of your narrative will affect the way you approach your story’s construction, whether or not you do so intentionally.
Chances are that you already know whether your book is driven by plot or character. But if you’re unsure, take a look at the main source of conflict in your story. If your protagonist is set upon defeating a specific villain (e.g Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, the murderer in Murder on The Orient Express, or Voldemort in the Harry Potter series), you’re likely writing a plot-driven story.
If, however, your protagonist faces multiple antagonists in their journey (e.g. the trolls, goblins, wargs, malicious elves, and fire-breathing dragon that Bilbo faces) and/or if they serve as their own worst enemy, you probably have a character-driven story on your hands.
With your story’s core arc identified, you can now work with intention to bring the very best version of your story to life.
In plot-driven narratives, this means sharpening your protagonist’s goal, bringing external conflict to the forefront, and asking how each scene works to plant or resolve the obstacles in your character’s path. In character-driven stories, you’ll instead focus on developing your protagonist’s lie, placing internal conflict in the limelight, and confronting how each scene transforms your character for better or worse.
In time, understanding your story’s driving arc will also help you write killer copy that proves compelling to the agents, editors, and readers who will one day love your work. So take care to examine the foundations of your story now. You never know just how much a little insight can transform how you approach a story and your efficiency in bringing it to life.