Character-Driven vs. Plot-Driven

Evening, Squiders. I hope it’s not as hot where you are as it is here.

When we were talking about pacing last week, we mentioned that slower pacing tends to emphasize character over plot, and faster pacing tends to emphasize plot over character.

Which brings us to a classic breakdown: the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story.

What do these terms mean? Well, arguably, every story has both plot and character development. Plot is, of course, the events that happen in a story, and character, in this case, refers to how a character changes over the course of a story.

A simplistic definition is that plot-driven stories are more concerned about what’s happening–that it’s not important for characters to grow or change as much because what’s happening is awesome. Character-driven plots care more about what the characters are going through with less concern about exterior events.

Another definition I’ve seen used is that plot-driven stories are reactive (i.e., things happen to the main character) whereas character-driven stories are proactive (i.e., the main character is doing things).

You will hear these terms thrown around a lot, but in most cases, especially novels, stories are both. I’ve started to see a shift in terminology to external and internal arcs.

An external arc is plot-driven. It’s the events happening around the characters. To use my favorite Star Wars examples, the external arc of the original trilogy is the war with the Empire. A lot of plot points are directly linked to this: Vader’s attack on Leia’s cruiser, the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire’s attack on Hoth, etc.

An internal arc is character-driven. This is the internal dilemma a character faces throughout a story. Luke must go from snotty farmboy to Jedi knight. Han must learn to stop putting himself first and be willing to fight for what he believes in.

Any decent story has both. I’ve actually made a change in how I outline my stories in the last year to outlining separate internal and external arcs, which has proved to be immensely helpful. Without an external plot, it’s hard to draw your readers along a narrative, and without an internal arc, it’s hard for your readers to care about your characters.

(Note that all main characters, if you have more than one, need their own internal arc.)

Don’t get me wrong–stories still can hinge more on action or more on decisions. But, like pacing, most are a mix of plot driven and character driven bits.

What do you think, Squiders? Agree or disagree with me? Have any excellent examples of a story where the internal and external arcs are tied together really spectacularly?

Non-Traditional Storytelling

Yesterday I finished reading The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero (and am slightly jealous, because English is his second language and you totally cannot tell). The story is told through journal entries, letters, video and audio recording transcripts, and one of the character’s (who is mute) notes.

(Also, there is an unexpected twist right at the end, so I am at turns annoyed and impressed.)

The format reminded me of House of Leaves, though less headache inducing. For those of you who missed the HoL cart ten years ago or whenever it was, HoL is a horror story told through a variety of formats as well. It also plays with text location (such as having text appear only on a portion of the page, depending on the physical location of the characters).

When done well, non-traditional storytelling can be amazing. When done poorly, it comes across as contrived and overworked.

I am not prone to fanfiction (because I find it hard to manipulate characters that are not my own), but I did a group fanfic once. I was a teenager–15 or 16–and it was for a computer game series that I have never played. A friend asked me to join because she knew I liked to write. There were quite a few of us–10 or 15–and we rotated chapters. The last few chapters someone programmed to be interactive on the Internet (such as it was, back in the late 90s). At the time it was amazing.

Now you hear about new media storytelling, where stories bridge formats. You have interactive stories where the reader has to help the story along, or can get different results depending on choices (Choose Your Own Adventure books being an old-school version of this). When The Da Vinci code came out, they had a game set up where you had to call phone numbers, email “people,” and solve puzzles to get to the end. (The latter is arguably something called an ARG: alternate reality game. ARGs fascinate me and I think it would be fun to do one, but also a huge amount of work.)

It was interesting reading The Supernatural Enhancements because I am also reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, which is about as traditional as you can get.

Do you like non-traditional storytelling, Squiders? I do, but in small quantities, since sometimes I feel like they can be difficult to work through. (TSE, however, is a nice, easy read, so I do recommend it.) What’s your favorite non-traditional story? Ever done an ARG? If so, which one and how did you like it? I did Perplex City for a while until someone solved it, but found it hard to keep up with the narrative on top of the puzzles.

Oops

I meant to publish yesterday’s post today, but messed up, and then it seemed like too much work to take it down because it automatically goes out on all sorts of social media.

So today you get a silly poem instead.

Ode to my Stomach

I like my stomach
It’s really neat
Because it digests
The food that I eat

What is Pacing?

I wrote up this pacing info sheet to use for discussion at my writing group’s storycraft meeting the other day, and I thought the rest of you might enjoy it as well. Pacing is interesting–it’s mostly organic and instinctual, and even understanding the theory behind it doesn’t really help translate into actually being able to do it. (As evidenced by the many, many examples we came up with during the meeting of traditionally published books that were too fast or too slow on their pacing.)

What is Pacing?

The pace of your story is the rhythm of your story. It is an indication of whether things are proceeding at a proper speed, or if things are moving too fast or too slow. Your pacing needs to be correct to keep your reader properly engaged. Too fast, and your reader loses key information; too slow, and they lose interest and may put your story down, never to be picked up again.

Is Pacing Always the Same?

No, pacing varies between types of stories and can also vary at different points within the same story.

What Affects My Pacing?

Your pacing can be affected by many things, including:

  • Sentence length
  • Scene length
  • Chapter length
  • Word choice (long or short words, adverbs and adjectives)
  • Scene depth
  • Telling vs. Showing
  • Amount of description

Some of these are common sense. In the middle of a fight, you don’t stop to describe the colors of the wall or the emotions of your main characters. When your main characters spies their fated love across the street, you don’t cut their emotions short. Many short chapters drive a story faster, which can be good for thriller or adventure stories. Longer chapters with multiple scenes can be better for a story where you want the readers to dwell more in the action.

Isn’t Going Faster/Slower Better?

Most stories, especially longer works, need a variety of pacing. If you’re constantly using fast pacing, you might make your reader anxious, like they feel like they can’t get a break. They might not get bored, but they might put the book down in order to catch their breath.

If you are using mostly slow pacing, your reader might feel like nothing is happening, or that you lack a plot. Even strictly character-driven or introspective pieces occasionally have bits of faster pacing.

What is Slow Pacing Good For?

Slow pacing emphasizes something. It can be a good way to sneak in foreshadowing, or to indicate that something or someone is important in some matter. It can be a good way to hit on emotional reflection that might be necessary just after something major has happened. Romantic scenes tend to be slower to allow the reader to dwell in them. Slower pacing also puts more of an emphasis on character over plot.

What is Fast Pacing Good For?

Fast pacing drags your reader along for the ride. It raises stakes and emotional intensity. And it can be a good way to help readers feel what your character is feeling, especially if things are going horribly awry. Faster pacing puts an emphasis on plot over character.

How Do I Slow Down My Pacing?

The following things slow down pacing:

  • Description
  • Longer sentences, scenes, chapters
  • Flowery or descriptive language
  • Relaxed dialogue
  • Character self-reflection
  • Flashbacks
  • “Show”

To create relaxed dialogue, your characters can wander from their point, exchange pleasantries, and tell stories. But be careful, because too much of these can get boring pretty fast. You can also have you characters doing things in between lines of dialogue. (So, instead of just ‘“I’m fine,” she said, “why do you ask?”’ you can have ‘“I’m fine,” she said, dropping heavily down into the armchair and crossing her arms across her chest. “Why do you ask?”’)

How Do I Speed Up My Pacing?

The following things speed up pacing:

  • Shorter sentences (scenes, chapters)
  • Can use short, choppy sentence fragments
  • Cliffhangers
  • Foreshadowing
  • Lean writing without many or any descriptors
  • No or limited internal thoughts
  • Quick, snappy dialogue
  • Limited focus on things outside what’s immediately happening
  • “Tell”

To create fast-paced dialogue, you want to avoid using a lot of descriptors or intermediate actions. Only include pertinent information, and start and stop the dialogue at places without any excess. (Start at “James left me!” as opposed to “Hey, Barb, how are you?” “I’m feeling terrible–James left me!”) You can also have people talking over each other to get more information out at once.

(A note on foreshadowing: Foreshadowing generally increases the pace, because it causes the reader to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen, but it’s best to introduce the foreshadowing in a slower paced section where a reader is more likely to take note of it.)

So there you go, Squiders. Do you have anything to add? Examples of good pacing? Examples of bad pacing? Cheez-Its for the Landsquid?

An interesting thing that we noted at our meeting was that, while we tended to read equal amounts of mostly-fast and mostly-slow paced stories (as well as ones in the middle), the stories that we really liked and that stuck with us were almost universally slower paced.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Relationships

So, I believe it was last week when I mentioned I’d gone back to watching DS9. I’m a few episodes into Season 5 (watched two this morning, both of which I think I’ve somehow never seen before) and I was again struck by something that has been very noticeable this time around, and that’s the relationship between Captain Sisko and his son, Jake.

I think, as a kid and then later a college student, that I just lumped this in with the rest of the (admittedly, usually excellent) relationships which are, I would argue, really what makes DS9 work. But as a parent myself, rewatching these episodes (especially the tear-jerking season 4 episode “The Visitor”, which you should watch whether you’ve watched any other DS9 or not) have really resonated this time through. And they do a great job–any episode that has focused on Sisko and Jake has tended to be very strong. Kudos to everyone who wrote or acted or was related to them, because I do think it’s one of the best parent/child relationships I’ve seen portrayed on television.

DS9 tends to be people’s favorite or least favorite of the Trek series, probably because it’s so different. But because they have a “home base,” so to speak, it allowed them to do things differently, including a lot more focus on characters and relationships. I love the original series and Next Generation, but they’re more adventure of the week stories. Data and Spock are really the only characters whose background/feelings/growth are explored, and that’s because they’re the Other. DS9 does that to some extent with Odo, but almost every character–even side ones, like Rom or Nog–gets a character arc at some point.

And it explores family more too. There’s actually a lot of single father examples. Besides Sisko and Jake, there’s Rom and Nog and also Worf and Alexander at points. The O’Briens are a complete family unit with small children. They go into sibling relationships with Quark and Rom. And unlike Next Gen, where at times it’s not really clear where the children go during emergencies (or how they deal with the aftermath), these family relationships can be central in an emergency instead of being glossed over.

And I think, as an adult, I can appreciate this all more, both as good television and good writing skills. I stopped watching as a kid (I must have been 12 or 13) because of something silly which, in retrospect, was an opportunity for them to explore what happened when someone was isolated from their own type, even if they’d never really been home in the first place. To adapt to change. To live as something different but common, instead of being what you were and alone.

Anyway, if you want excellent ensemble television, with the occasional explosion or time travel romp, I highly recommend DS9. You do kind of have to watch it in order, though, to understand the multiseason Dominion War arc (and its predecessor wars with the Cardassians and the Klingons).

Fan of DS9, Squiders? Like Trek in general? Why or why not? Which series is your favorite?

Are the Chronically Late More Productive?

I read an interesting article last week. In it, the author breaks down the chronically late into two categories: 1) jerks who don’t care, and 2) what he calls Chronically Late Insane People (CLIPs) who care and feel horrible about it, but can’t manage to get their acts together.

He says that this type of chronically late person has an inability to tell how time works, and they tend to be late because it’s hard for them to transition between activities and they’re directly influenced by how productive they’ve been, with the implication being that there’s a productivity threshold, and until one crosses it you can’t leave.

Which got me to wondering: does this tendency make the chronically late more productive in general? Or do they just feel more guilty about it?

I’m one of these people. I’ve gotten much better over time about leaving on time, but this article helped me see how I structure my day, and I’m hoping being aware of this will help me get even better.

But I’ll make plans, and the plans will look something like this: Okay, I have to be somewhere at 9. So I have to leave the house by 8:45 (I usually build in a few minutes here, because I never leave the house when I say I will). That’s in an hour and a half. So in that time, I’m going to finish up some work, eat breakfast, get all family members dressed and fed, and brush the dog.

The problem becomes that I have a plan. And if something happens to disrupt my plan, or if it turns out that it’s just plain unrealistic, it’s really hard to tell myself I need to go. Plans!

But, on the other hand, if we’re leaving in 10 minutes and I don’t have anything to do, I will do something instead of sitting around and waiting, like work on cleaning the kitchen, or reading, or something like that. So I’d like to think that this makes me more productive, but it’s probably wishful thinking.

(This post has gotten fairly ironic at this point, because I started writing it two days ago.)

What do you think, Squiders? Are you one of these chronically late insane people? Or a recovering one? Do you feel like needing to stick to a set level of productivity before leaving is actually more productive? Am I crazy?

Taking a Look at Media

Hey, Squiders, hope you’re all having a lovely July. Mine has been too hot (hot damn), but I have been getting more writing done (mostly short stories, and also some on a joint story a friend and I are testing out) and I don’t really have too much to complain about in general.

I have several half-formed thoughts on books and movies I’ve watched/read lately, and I figured that I’d combine them into one post for simplicity’s sake.

  • Wreck-It Ralph

Have you seen this movie? This movie is a thing of beauty. Non-traditional protagonist, excellent twist ending, great care taken in the world-building and animation design (I love that they animated the main characters to look like their voice actors), great adult-level jokes. Seriously, if you haven’t watched this, you really should. It’s a nice break when the small, mobile one wants to watch this compared to some of the other stuff he likes (like Dinosaur Train, ugh). But in general he has good taste, like Lilo & Stitch or, as he calls it, the Robot Castle Movie (which is really Howl’s Moving Castle).

  • Jupiter Ascending

We finally got around to watching this after everyone said we should. It fell a little flat–felt like they tried to stuff too much into the movie for no good reason, and the big “twist” was pretty obvious from the beginning. Nice star power, though, and very pretty visuals. Whatever Eddie Redmayne is doing with his voice grated on me the whole time, though. Needed to develop their villain better too. Ah well, alas.

  • Deep Space Nine

A few years ago I decided I was going to watch DS9 all the way through because I never had–I watched the first four seasons when they were on, and then caught assorted episodes in syndication in the years that followed (in college I didn’t have class on Fridays, and Spike had five hours of Trek–2 TNG and 3 DS9–which ate a lot of my time). So I started watching, got to the third to last episode of Season 4, and then promptly got distracted by something else. That was probably two years ago. I’ve started up again now, but I can’t help but feel that I’ve done the exact same thing over again.

  • Out of the Silent Planet

I recently finished reading C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, which I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s a very straightforward scifi adventure, and there is still a tint of Christian religion, but not enough to bash you on the head (unlike another fantasy book I read recently called The Light of Eidon). I’d recommend it if you haven’t picked it up. I’ll see if I can hunt down the other two books in the trilogy.

  • Moonheart

Now I’m reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, which I picked up because I like the mythology spins Charles de Lint puts on his urban fantasy. It was written in 1984, and you can kind of tell because everyone smokes. Of all the things to date a story, right? But I find it really distracting for some reason. They do have computers which saves them. I don’t think we had a computer until the early 90s. I mean, my grandparents did before that, but it couldn’t have been much before. Anyway, it’s interesting because the lead up is much slower than I think you can get away with in a modern book, but I don’t mind that so much.

Seen or read anything good recently, Squiders? Or have opinions on anything?

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