Author’s Log: Plot vs Character (#ROW80)

Warning Character + Plot = Story.

Pretty simple, right? Yet, this past month or so as I was burning my way through Waking Muse #1, I was reminded once again that there are a multitude of ways to approach story development. Notice I said “story” development, not “plot” development, though there are a variety of ways to develop plot, as well.

My Keepers of the Flame series, for example, are action stories set in an apocalyptic world, with a side order of romance. These stories, then, are plot-driven. This doesn’t mean I’m sciving off on the character development, oh no! But action stories are like action movies, so my approach to these is going to be vastly different than my approach to something like Waking Muse #1, which is character-driven.

For Keepers, I use screenwriting techniques to develop the story. I have character sketches, sure–in addition to back stories, props and wardrobe. I “cast” my characters. My plot points are mapped on a Plot Incline on a white board, with lists of settings, characters, and important objects. (I call it my Nouns List–people, places, and things). I look for concept art to describe setting, and research those settings until I feel as though I could travel there and feel fairly confident I know where I’m going, and what to expect. I use beat sheets to brainstorm and navigate my way from Plot Point to Plot Point. I decide whether the character arc layer is going to follow a Mystic or Heroic Journey. The major conflict comes from an outside source, which then drives character conflicts. Then I spice it up with a variety of special effects. For me, an action story unfolds visually, like a movie.

Waking Muse #1 was a whole ‘nother kettle of words, because it was fully character-driven. The external conflict came from other characters which then drives internal conflict. Because the character arc is the story, each of my protagonists follow their own journeys, the Male and Female. (Interesting to note: Both a plot-driven story arc and a character-driven one encompasses nine “blocks”–three Acts, with three sections apiece.) Both the Male and Female journeys drive, in each block, what has to happen to move the character, and thus the story, forward. It also guides the conflict and stakes. In a quieter story such as this, it can be tempting to think that nothing is happening–when in fact there’s quite a lot going on. There just aren’t any explosions to announce it. 🙂

I have to go all old school with something like this–spiral notebooks and legal pads and a really good gel pen that flows like brushstrokes. I have to sit in silence and let the music of the words come to me, because the story unfolds in the words themselves. Instead of seeing the story, I have to sit quietly and listen for it, and try to strike the right chords. An action story’s music is rock n’ roll, but a charcter story’s music is a violin concerto, or a string quartet.

In a character-driven story, the plot is the character journey, whereas in a plot-driven story, the plot drives the character journey.

It’s like the difference between Die Hard and The Hours, both movies which I really love, but which are completely different in so many ways for reasons other than just genre and target audience. There’s still character development in Die Hard, but the main conflict is external, driving the character arcs. There’s still action in The Hours, but the main conflict is between characters, which in turn pulls forward the interal conflict with self. The Hours is a really excellent study of character driven story built in a ripple effect, where the ripples reach through time from the core of a single character’s conflicts. Its resonance is breathtaking, yo. Even if it’s not your sort of film, if you’re a storyteller of any kind, I recommend it as a study resource.

ROW80LogocopyProduction Schedule (#ROW80)

Keepers #2 (IN PRODUCTION): No updates, I’m afraid. This is why I highly advocate working on another project while the first is on sub or in prod. There is a LOT of waiting involved, so it behooves the savvy Writer Monkey to be constantly, and consistently, producing something. That way you have a porfolio of works in the pipeline at varying stages instead of waiting months or even a year for something to hit the shelves. Always be writing, and always be working–that’s my motto!

The Minstrel’s Daughter (DRAFTING): a.k.a. “Big Dang Projeckt”–YAY, ACT II. I’m working my way from the aftermath of Plot Point 1 (“The Siege”) at the 25% mark to Pinch Point 1 (“The Fire”) at the 37.5% mark. This is a bit I’m quite looking forward to, as I get to introduce one of my favorite characters (a supporting bad guy) and kill off one of my least favorite characters (a minor antagonist, but not a bad guy per se). Sometimes I find I need to restrain myself from making these unlikable sources of conflict TOO unlikeable, if you know what I mean. It’s fun, but not neccessarily wise. There must be some redeemable quality about them so that their deaths can be felt without the mass cheering in the stands.

Keepers #3 (IN BETA): Keepers #3 is now in the capable hands of the Stunt Monkey. I give her a list of concerns, and she turns her discerning eye on my manuscript. I then ply her with copius amounts of banana daiquiri, because rum makes everything better. Once I have her feedback in hand, I’ll revise again. This may go back and forth a couple of times, until I consider the story is at its absolute best, at which point I submit to Editor Awesome. While the Stunt Monkey does her thing, I write the cover letter (same as a query, but really a cover because for a novella the entire manuscript is submitted, not sample pages), and the dreaded synopsis (2 pages single-spaced for Samhain).

Yep, I still “query” a new manuscript, even though it’s to an editor I have a relationship with, for a publisher I’ve previously published with. There is no guarantee they’ll take a new manuscript, even if it’s part of an existing series. I garner a contract on book-by-book basis, not on spec.

The pipeline gusheth!

How about you guys? How do you decide the order of your projects? Or do you play it by ear?

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6 thoughts on “Author’s Log: Plot vs Character (#ROW80)

  1. shanjeniah says:

    Cate,

    I love reading your updates, because, in some ways, we are very alike in the way we do things, and in others, very different, and I find the combination intriguing.

    I tend to come to themes, important objects, and the like organically, and even my more action-filled stories tend to be character-driven.

    As for projects – well, I am in the midst of indulging my decades- long fascination with the stories in my head. I have a double, interwoven series, with Star Trek fan fiction and original fantasy volumes, written so that either series can stand alone, with a richer experience if someone chooses to read both.

    The Trek is a free offering – I don’t want to make money on something that has given me so much!, and the fantasy will, eventually, be offered for sale.

    The thing is – these started off as jumbled stories I scribbled in notebooks, and I wrote a few as NaNo projects before I had the epiphany that what I had were two distinct epic series in the making.

    So, things are moving along out of order. The two books that are now in early revision were not plotted (at ALL!), and they are from very late in the process.

    Two more books are in finished rough draft status, awaiting their companion volumes. These were slightly plotted. Another WIP is a jumble of both series, and wandering around looking for it’s way (it wasn’t plotted either).

    The first books in each series are still working their way through rough drafting. That’s gone much better, and I am outlining as I go with Rock Your Plot.

    I have an idea to develop for November’s NaNo, and at least two other volumes I want to begin in 2014.

    Out of all of this, eventually, will come a coherent plan, but it’s very much a learn as I go process – messy and exciting!

    For right now, it’s a little frustrating, because I have a vision and I am impatient to see it into fruition, but that is going to take longer, since things are so chaotic, production-wise. On the flip side, i know that things will smooth out as I go along, and, as I get closer to having the first books ready to offer, I will be working on others, too, so that, at some point, I will have completed volumes just waiting for their time to come.

    Wow! I about wrote a novel, in this comment!

    Anyway, wonderful progress! May your pipeline not burst! =)

    1. catemorgan says:

      It’s okay, Shan–I love hearing from my readers! And Holy Wow, it looks like your pipeline is even gushier than mine! o_O But that’s okay–always be writing, and always be working, that’s my motto these days. When you’re on sub or in prod it’s a game of hurry up and wait (and wait…and wait…) which I’ve learned to take as an opportunity to work on new shiny. In order to make money at this gig, you’ve got to build a portfolio and that takes time as well as hard work. It sounds like you’re well on your way!

  2. Lisa says:

    “In a character-driven story, the plot is the character journey, whereas in a plot-driven story, the plot drives the character journey.”

    Wow, this is a great definition of the two types of story. Thank you!

    As for how I prioritise my projects, I’m doing something different right now. An experiment, I suppose.

    Before, the selection of projects and prioritising when to do them was all mind-driven. And although I achieved my goals most of the time, there was no long-lasting satisfaction. I needed to go and achieve MORE goals in order to maintain the high. (And I wore myself out after years of that!)

    So now, I let my daily goals come to me. Something will pop into my head during the morning and then I do what I can to move it along. I never know from one day to the next what will crop up, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I trust that what’s coming up is doing so because it’s the optimal time to work with it. 🙂

    1. catemorgan says:

      I’ve been there, too! Sometimes I “outplan” myself then ending up stressing myself out by trying to do ALL THE THINGS. So I started breaking it down to manageable bits “I want to finish a rough draft of Project 1 by such-and-such a date. Therefore, what is the most productive thing I can this week to accomplish that? Subsequently, what is the most productive thing I can do TODAY?”

      My brain usually already knows, but having a mental “mission statement” generally drives the point home and keeps me focused.

      Thanks for dropping in!

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