Sunday, March 30, 2008

on plot points

One of the ways in which we divvy up styles is by designating a given fiction either plot-driven or character-driven. The plot-driven piece follows a series of specific action points—places in which particular things happen to drive the story forward. The degree to which this aligns with an actual formula—say, rom-com, thriller, or heroic journey—varies.

When it comes to writing my own fiction, I've always taken my cues from the characters themselves. Though I've tried outlining plot, it pretty much falls by the wayside once the folks in my story start doing stuff. Events follow the interactions of my characters rather than the plot informing what the characters do.

What a writer gives up by writing a character-driven novel is the cruise control expectation many readers have grown accustomed to. Not all readers want to be drawn in to the ruminations, wrong turns and epiphanies experienced by characters—they'd rather see things happen to them without having to invest in the big voice—the unresolved issues—the pain. When literature explores the big questions, readers cannot blithely turn from their own knock-about concerns—instead, they have to stare them in the face. Not everyone wants to feel when they read. Mostly, they want to escape.

That's not to say that the character-driven novel shouldn't work towards climax, or have tension or include lots of action. The best novels I've read lately do both. Take Tom Perrotta's Little Children for instance. I can't think of a novel that handles multiple points of view, culmination of event and eerie tension better than that book. When the shit hits the fan the reader is absorbed, but also led to question his stance on morality, humanity and wrath.

I guess what I want from my own book is what I look for in the work of others: things that happen to characters I'm invested in, as well as an invitation to ponder the larger story, one that connects me to realities I would otherwise not embrace.

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