What kinds of books and movies do you like? Do you prefer big action spectacles or introspective relationship tales?
While it sounds like I might just be talking about the differences between stories that men and women like, aspects of character-driven and plot-driven stories can be surprising.
The movie Braveheart, for instance, was more about the character of William Wallace than it was was about the plot. Sure, lots of stuff happened in that film, but it would have been a radically different story if Wallace had not been the main character. His sense of honor and burning desire for freedom inspired those around him to action.
Sticking with the medium of film, you could also assume that a movie is plot-driven simply because it has a large shooting budget. Titanic, one of the most successful films of all time, had an estimated budget of $200 million back in 1997. Thankfully, it was a character-driven film. If it had been plot-driven, it would have been fairly disappointing. (Spoiler Warning: the boat sinks!)
Even in the dramatic environment of the Titanic’s sinking, director / screenwriter James Cameron was able to weave a beautiful love story. The sinking of the ship changed the characters forever, yet our focus remained primarily with Jack and Rose throughout the devastation.
The Best of Both Worlds
Stories do not have to solely dwell in one camp or the other. There are plenty of examples of stories with big hooks that immediately engage the audience in terms of the plot while still delivering strong characters that show tremendous depth and development throughout the story.
Superstar authors Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are experts in this blending of story objectives.
The Stand opens with the hook of the super-flu and its devastating effects on humanity, yet the depth of the characters allows the reader to fully understand the emotional impact of a staggering loss of human life. As the story continues towards its ultimate conflict, the reader is invested in the outcome of each character.
And Harry Potter… the boy wizard’s massive fanbase was collectively holding its breath to see if the character they had grown to dearly love the challenges that faced him in the last book. Despite his many adventures rich with plot, Potter’s character (and the rest of the cast) had time to resonate with the audience.
Reveling in the Extremes
But sometimes we want to jump completely into a plot-driven story or a character-driven story.
Director Michael Bay, author Steve Baldacci and several other creators have made profitable careers of plot-driven, action-packed tales. There are days when we want to revel in the big-screen delight of an enormous explosion or feel the intensity of an urban shoot-out in a gripping novel.
Other times, we’re ready to reflect on the nature of life in character-driven pieces like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (one of my personal favorites).
How Does All of This Fit into Your Writing
If you’re currently working on a story, can you identify what type of tale you are telling? Perhaps you need someone else to take a look at your story and let you know. You might think you’re writing a story that is perfectly balanced between character and plot only to find out that another reader could not recall a single memorable trait about your lead character.
While the average readers or movie-goers will rarely stop to think whether the story they are consuming emphasizes plot or character more, they will experience the story through the lens you’ve used to tell it. The massively popular television series Mad Men would be entirely different if it spent all of its time achieving plot goals without exposing you to all of the heart-wrenching drama behind the consequences of people’s decisions.
Writing Exercise: To further define the differences, try writing a short scene (less than 500 words) about a couple on a walk. In a character-driven example, you could write about the feelings each have about their relationship and their awkward attempts at conveying those emotions to one another. In a plot-driven example, you could write about a couple desperately trying not to draw attention to themselves as they walk away from a robbery with their pockets full of cash.
In both examples, the action is the same, but the tone is completely different.
What Do You Think?
Which stories pop to mind as examples of plot-driven or character-driven tales?
Photo by PJ_Vanf