Writers! Plot is not Important!

A plot. Geddit? Okay. Bad joke.

There’s an old chestnut in the writing community that there are two types of books. On one side, the high-octane, fast-paced, plot-driven book that has very little characterisation; and, on the other side, the kind of books that deal with character’s motivation and psychological states and, in which, not a lot happens. This is, indeed, an old chestnut. True, there are plot-driven books – like The Da Vinci Code – that rely heavily on plot and have little in the way of character development, and there are books where characterisation is paramount and the action is minimal. But the fact is that most books fall between these two extremes, in a middle ground. The kinds of books written by Stephen King or John Connolly, where there is very much a plot but there is also character development. And it’s this middle ground that interests me.

So, in these middle ground books, which is more important, plot or characterisation? Or are they both equally as important? I imagine that the majority of people reading this – both writers and readers – would say they’re both equally as important. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that characterisation is more important.

I fact, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, and say, plot is not important.

Whoa, crazy writer guy, I hear you say, that’s fighting talk! Well, let me clarify that. First of all, every book has a plot. A plot is merely one event that follows another. If someone just gets up from the couch and walks across the room – that’s a plot. But the plot should not be paramount to the writer. Plots can come from anywhere. Plots are happening in the news, in the street, in the house next door, every day. The plots are not important; it is not the job of the writer to come up with endless believable plots. (“Believable” is a misnomer anyway, because many of the events that take place in real life, most of us would say stretch credulity if we read them in a book.) It is the job of the writer to make the characters involved in these plots interesting to the reader. That’s why some great books have “no plot” as such. Because the characters are so interesting and believable that they don’t require an intricate, fast-paced plot. The ingenuity of the plot is not what is important. What is important is the ingenuity or tragedy or pathos of the characters caught up in whatever plots the writers conceives.

You’ve probably often heard writer’s talk about a voice or a character entering their heads and how they just had to tell that character’s story. This is very true. It happens to us all as writers; we’re inspired to write a character’s story. And we KNOW the character. We must do. They’ve inspired us enough to want to tell their story after all. We don’t know everything about them, but we know the kind of person they are. And that’s enough to begin with. We can start the story there and as we write we will find out more about the character. Indeed, that’s the fun: watching the character grow organically as you tell the story, rather than requiring them to meet some preset list of plot points.

Another thing writers often say is that they didn’t know where the character was going to go by the end of the book or that they thought the character was going to go one way but, instead, went another was that the writer didn’t see coming. This is good. This means the character is – as I mentioned above – growing organically, and is shaping the plot in the process, rather than the plot carrying the character along.

Of course, there will be many that will argue with this, pointing out that crime novels or fantasy novels, etc. would be nothing without their intricately-planned plots. I would say in response that plots in these books may be important but it is still the characters that must carry the book. Stephen King’s or John Connolly’s or Philip K Dick’s plots do not carry the story (in fact, in Dick’s case all his novels were basically the same plot!) their characters do.

So, in summation, characterisation important, plot not so much. What do you think? Am I completely wrong and bone-headed? (It’s a distinct possibility.) Let me know in the comments below.

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17 thoughts on “Writers! Plot is not Important!

  1. Derek, thank you for this post. This subject is one of the things that cripples my writing process. I get so stressed out about plot, when all I want to do is believable characters, that I have left so many projects unfinished. I think I’ll go back and see what characters I can salvage from the bin and start new without focusing so much on plot.

  2. I think you’re just debating writing styles, and obviously you’re a fan of character based novels. What about the hundreds of thousands of people who love John Locke’s writting? (Very little character development, deffinitely plot driven) Are they all wrong? Like I said, I think it just boils down to personal taste.

    1. Hi Lynne. I agree it is all objective and I don’t believe it’s a case of “right or wrong”. As I said in the post, I’m merely playing Devil’s Advocate but I do feel a novel without strong characters is not as engaging as a novel without much plot development, because the plot development is “contained” in the actions (both physical and psychological) that the characters perform and the decisions and choices they make.

  3. Derek, I find most of my stories begin with a scene, sometimes these are accompanied by a character, some not. Now, I’m a lover of all of my “stories” but, it’s the scenes partnered with a character that transform into full novels.

    I’m an all-over-the-place-writer; picture books, 1 chapter book, one YA novel (with another in the works) and about fifteen adult start/stop projects. Obviously, I enjoy writing for children, since none of my adult ideas have panned out.

    Back to the subject of your post. I have characters popping in and out of my head every day, all day. I call it the Writer’s Plague. Mostly, they distract me like evil minions out to destroy my wips.

    However, when an entire scene (with a developed character) plays out in front of me, literally before my eyes, such as my wagon experience in West Texas, I pay attention. We’re talking full-on note scribbling attention. I can be driving down the road and have to pull the car over and write notes down on my Starbucks napkin.

    I’d have to say, I’m a middle-grounder with a lean towards credible characters. A character can “Blah, blah, blah” all day long in my mind, and a scene can play out in my brain that makes me go, “Huh?” But, when the two arrive together, that’s when I take it and run.

    All of my completed projects started this way. So, do I agree with you? I don’t know. I’ve rambled so much, I forgot what your questions were!!

    Thanks for the post! You definitely sparked some obvious thought here. :))

  4. I think you’ve pretty much spelled it out accurately, Derek. If a novel is all plot, it might interest me, but it doesn’t engage me like those with fully developed characters. A book with cardboard characters is one I usually forget five minutes after I put it down. If the plot is very fast-paced and surprising I will read to the end, but it’s like eating a packaged cookie, comparied to tiramisu. It’s just not that yummy.
    I much perfer a novel with characters who drive the plot forward, and who change or discover something about themselves over the course of the novel. And you’re right…King is a master at this.

  5. Oh wow…hmm.. I like to write using both. I write the scene, this happens, that happens, but it’s the characters that carry it along. I’m a big Stephen King fan, so I tend to judge other books on his style of writing.

  6. I’m definitely a character driven reader as well as a character driven author. My stories come out of my characters, who they are and how they react to what is around them. That could be settings, events or other characters.

    It’s not that I don’t like plot driven books at all. I have read and enjoyed a lot of them in my lifetime, but character will always come first with me.

  7. Thanks for the post, Derek. The way I’ve always thought about it is that character and plot are fashioned out of the same elemental material; that they are both there to serve the story and its moral and conceptual premise – they are both a function of the story. Above all, they are there to make us feel something, for without it, we can’t care about either. Great post to get us all thinking!

  8. What a great blog post! Thanks to Krystal Wade for directing me here via Twitter. 🙂 Plot is great, but I’m much more enamored by the human interaction, and to me it’s all about characters – their lives, relationships, backgrounds, highs and lows. The human condition. Those are the stories that make me shudder. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some fast-flowing action. But I prefer what characters say and do to drive a story – the showing, not the telling. I feel the same way about films. “Precious,” for example. Wow, what an impact that movie had, and it dealt highly with how people expressed themselves. “Brokeback Mountain.” That, in both film AND the short story (which is phenomenal, by the equally phenomenal E. Annie Proulx), is about what the characters do and say that make it so amazing. I’m rambling, I know!! I apologize. I just had to put in my 8 cents. 🙂

  9. Personally, I read primarily for character, with plot coming in a close second. It’s one reason, why I don’t read many crime novels. For me, many are too dry – clinical almost.

    However, there’s one exception to this: Janet Evanovitch’s hilarious and intelligent Stephanie Plum series, where character and plot are superb in equal measure. Everything comes together by the last page but until then it’s impossible know how Evanovitch is going to pull it off. But more than this, something happens, so something else happens, and how the lead character Plum, a bounty hunter, reacts is what drives the plot forward.

  10. I love this post because it’s something that’s been on my mind lately. For me great characters hold books together and plot is secondary. I want to read about characters who are memorable and believable, characters who have something to say. My own writing is led by characters, rather than plot. Obviously I want my characters to be part of an interesting story, but at the same time I want them to tell the story in their own unique and distinct way. I want them to have a voice that is worth listening to and for that voice to take readers on a journey. Great post, Derek. 🙂

  11. This really isn’t an either/or thing. You need to pay very careful attention to BOTH. Any novel with “cardboard characters” is going to suck regardless of how clever you are in stringing together events, but a novel full of richly realized characters aimlessly wandering around is just as bad. A STORY requires both, in equal measure. No free pass on either element.

  12. …yeah I’d say that’s about right. Sure it’s good to know what’s going to happen in a book, but if the person doing all the action in the story is nothing but a cardboard cut out then it’s just a bunch of stuff happening.

    Oddly enough though I don’t follow my own advice. When I write, I conceptualize a story, a plot, rather than a character. I set up a motif and a theme and then the character just kinda evolves to fit the environment I’ve set them in. Most of my characters though are average people – the just happen to be sucked into extraordinary situations. So, I just see how they react I suppose haha

  13. I’m with others in saying that the character-driven story is just another type of narrative, not the only or ultimate type of narrative.

    I agree that characters have to be interesting and evolve over the narrative, but they must also be in a situation that compels them to do so. A character doesn’t evolve absent of stimulus — so I don’t think plot can be chucked altogether.

  14. How “in character” of you, Derek, to pick up the thread of a 3000 year old discussion. Aristotle also postulated that character trumps plot in the Poetics.

    One of my favorite books on writing theory is Lagos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. The book is about Playwriting, but it is one of the best books ever written about this theory. Egri points out that well defined characters, their conflicts and their arcs, not only drive the plot forward, but generate the plot and are the mark of craftsmanship.

    Woody Allen, who took Egri’s course said, “I still think his The Art of Dramatic Writing is the most stimulating and best book on the subject ever written, and I have them all.” Allen’s work is a great example of character generating plot. I personally prefer this approach. It has less chance of being formulaic, although the structural approach becomes really important in screenwriting.

  15. There’s always the argument of what the reader is comfortable with. As we know, some people can deal with emotions and enjoy reading a novel with great characterisations; then there are those who’d just bottle up every feeling and hide it in a dark corner; for these people plot-driven novels are better to digest -less emotions to take on… Of course, I’m not saying this is all clean cut and black & white; that’s the beauty of life and the wonders of all the great individuals out there. This is just another argument amongst many. I personally fall between the two and like a good balance between characterisation and plot-driven novels -my writing tends to fall between the two extremes too. 🙂

    Thanks for another great post Derek.

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