My Plot Development Process
Part 6: Story Drivers
Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016
Once upon a time I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. At last I am answering the question, in this miniseries about my plot development process.
Given the way I've talked about plot so far in this miniseries, it's reasonable for me to examine the question of whether my take on plot has room for the classical concept of story "drivers," such as plot and characters, and that's what I'm going to do this week.
A "Driven" Story
Driven stories, regardless of the driver, are always preferable to non-driven ones, and it can be argued that a story without a driver isn't really a story so much as a collection of thoughts. Inherent in the concept of a story is a progression of some kind—the conceptually coherent displacement that I've mentioned in past weeks. However, it is useful to point out that some stories evolve from "a collection of thoughts" without having a driver initially; this is a perfectly valid way of storywriting.
Specifically, a story driver is that which has priority over the course of the coherent displacement. When we speak of a character-driven story, we're talking about a story where the high-fidelity representation of the characters determines the course of the story. That's usually suggested as an exclusive alternative to a plot-driven story, where the plot (in the conventional sense of the term) is the driver, meaning that the author's desire to depict a specific series of events, or one or more specific events in particular, comprises the kernels around which the rest of the story is built or by which the rest of the story's flow is controlled.
If we go by my own definitions of plot, the concept of a plot-driven story doesn't make much sense, or at least it enters into the realm of the esoteric, sharing company with premises like the "vocabulary-driven" story and the "pacing-driven" story. This simply reflects that by my understanding the concept of plot is inextricable from the concept of story: any story will be "plot-driven."
Therefore, it's actually more useful to look at the idea of plot-driven stories from the context of the conventional definition of plot: important events that coherently propel a story from its beginning to its conclusion.
Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven
The reason plot-driven is often distinguished from character-driven is that, typically, an author's story goals will fit reasonably into one of these two categories and not the other: character studies (i.e., spending time with the characters and getting to know them), and accounts of events (i.e., a specific sequence of events happens). Why this is, is an interesting question in itself. I speculate that humans have two particular modes that account for a great deal of our passion and emotional investment: histories, which translate to plot-driven stories, and where the cataloguing of events is the core goal; and social dramas, which translate to character-driven stories, where accounting for the people in a given social context is the core goal and any objective events are irrelevant except for their impact on that social context.
The game Chrono Trigger is an outstanding example of a plot-driven story. The characters are one-dimensional cutouts that exist only because the plot requires them, and whose endearment depends mostly on tropic affiliations and our imaginative inferences.
Majora's Mask, meanwhile, is a superlative example of a character-driven story. Even though the specific characters are not necessarily all that deep compared to Chrono Trigger's characters, it is nevertheless the exercise of getting to know these characters that gives the game its gravity. The plot is omnipresent, but is almost always in the background.
Plot- and character-driven stories are not the sole drivers of stories. In particular, theme-driven stories, language-driven stories, comedy-driven stories, and milieu- (or "genre"-)driven stories are all reasonably popular.
Driver Exclusivity and Lack Thereof, and Multiplicity
Plot- and character-driven stories are not truly mutually exclusive, although in practice they tend to end up that way because it's quite difficult to integrate independent character behavior with independent event sequences. Nevertheless, for an author who is particularly inclined, it is possible to engineer both a history and a social drama together simultaneously. (Be careful not to mistake this hybrid driver for plot-driven stories where the characters are designed to serve the plot's needs (such as The Lord of the Rings.)
The other types of story drivers are also not necessarily exclusive, and in fact I find it even easier to hybridize or "stack" these on top of one of the two big ones (of plot drivers or character drivers). They can also stand independently from plot and character drivers.
For example, I've found that virtually all of my creative work is theme-driven in addition to whatever other drivers may be present. Some of my work could even be called strictly theme-driven, with no plot drivers or other drivers. Mate of Song is by far the best example of this. I think I originally described it as character-driven, but that was a mistaken and it became clear to me relatively early on that the story is not driven by who Afiach and Spinach are as characters, but by thematics.
To a lesser extent, some of my work is also language-driven—but not so much as you might think if you're familiar with me. While language is highly prominent in my storytelling, it usually isn't a driver of my stories.
Does It Matter?
It doesn't strictly matter what a story's drivers are, so long as there are any, but in practice it can help you to find focus and direction with a story-in-progress by identifying or establishing drivers for it.
And although I've been a proud partisan for plot-driven stories in times gone by, I no longer feel that any specific driver is intrinsically superior. I do think that the plot-driven or "history-oriented" mode is much more natural to me than the character-driven mode, and is that much more conducive for me when it comes to saying the things I want to say. And, factoring everything out, I think that a character-driven story is more likely to fall flat than a plot-driven one, because social dramas are not as inherently interesting—at least to people in my neck of the personality temperament woods—as histories, and thus it's easier to tell a dull story. Nevertheless, I've found my respect for the character-driven mode over the years, and, at least insofar as Silence is concerned, her character (where present) has become a driver of my broader Curious Tale storytelling as much as the master plot itself is—an example of that illusive true hybrid of plot-driven and character-driven modes.
(For whatever it may be worth, I don't think it's a coincidence that this applies only to one character in The Curious Tale Hybridizing plot drivers and character drivers requires a great deal of precision engineering, and this becomes significantly harder as you increase the number of driving characters. But with Silence herself, there's room, and she actually warps the master plot in some circumstances—i.e., she drives the story in those instances.)
Also, while I've traditionally called myself a plot-driven writer, and I think that remains accurate, it is equally inaccurate not to include "theme-driven writer" alongside it. As I've evolved over the years I have become more and more drawn to thematically-driven storytelling, to the point where I think it is more descriptive of me, and more representative of my distinctness from other writers, to say that my work has a pronounced theme-driven quality.
Tune in Next Weekend
By this point, I've explained what plot is, how it works, and what its key precursors are—which, if you've followed along this far, you may well agree is much more important and complex than is generally acknowledged among literary types.
The remainder of this miniseries will focus on specific techniques and methods for the development side of plot development.
This is a good point for me to transition the miniseries from a regular schedule to an occasional one. In future installments I'll typically tackle one or two developmental issues per article, and instead of forcing them every two weeks I'd like to save them for when I'm feeling like I can definitively tackle that particular topic. So, the miniseries isn't going away, but don't go looking for it in two weeks. I will, however, strive to do at least one installment per month.
Next weekend in Curious Tale Saturdays, it's a grab bag. I don't know what I'll be writing about, yet. Tune in for the exciting reveal!
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!