Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plot Driven or Character Driven?

In discussing plot and character, we often make a distinction between books that are plot driven and books that are character driven.

Most mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers are essentially plot driven. In a plot-driven story, incidents happen, and the characters are forced to react to them.  The hero is accused of murder.  The heroine’s baby is kidnapped.  The heroine wakes up to find the villain has set her house on fire.

In a character-driven book, the story is shaped by the character traits and the inner feelings of the hero and heroine.  Most literary fiction and some romances are character driven.

However, to some extent these two elements are always intertwined.  Because you can’t work on a plot without having the right characters who fit into it and without considering how the incidents affect these people.

The way I think about it is—the most important thing about each element of the plot is—how will the characters I’ve created react to this situation?

What will be their feelings, their emotions?  Seeing the hero dangling off a cliff adds drama and tension to a story.  But the tension is increased when we experience the scene through the eyes of the heroine—who is desperate to save him.

Or turn the tables.  How does he feel if he comes back to their hideout and finds she’s been kidnapped?  What if he comes home and finds she’s packed her things and left?

I’m going to take what seems like an extreme example of a plot-driven scene and look at how adding character-driven elements enhances it.

In Eternal Moon, one of my werewolf books, a serial killer is using implements to torture and murder women real estate agents.  After Jacob and Renata have made love, she gets a tip that he may be the killer.  When she thinks he’s away, she searches his house and discovers planted evidence that makes him look like the murderer (small plastic bags with locks of hair from the women who have been killed).

Jacob comes in and sees she’s found the evidence.  Although he protests that he’s being set up, she’s holds him at gunpoint while she calls the cops.  He changes into a werewolf and shows her why he doesn’t need implements to tear anyone to shreds.

The transformation takes place while the police are on the way to Jacob’s house to arrest him.  The action is tense and dramatic, but it’s only part of the scene.  The emotions of the characters are equally important.  Renata’s horror that the man she made love with is a serial killer. Jacob’s anger and frustration that she thinks he’s guilty. His desperation to prove it can’t be him.  Her terror at discovering his true nature.

This scene is obviously from a paranormal romantic suspense novel.  The external plot is the suspense plot, which has to move at a good pace to keep the reader turning the pages.  But, as in any romance, the internal plot is always equally–or more–important.

Once I get my basic idea, I focus on the characters and the conflict between them as I design the incidents of the story.

In any scene you write, you don’t have to get it down all at once. I often start by focusing on blocking out the action. In the scene I described above, the action is her breaking into his house and discovering the evidence hidden in his closet, his coming home and finding her, her holding him at gunpoint while she calls the authorities, and his changing to wolf form.  I may initially get some of the characters’ emotions, but I always have to go back and add more to tie the action to what the characters are feeling.

The scene I described above started from Renata’s point of view as she sneaks through his house, first feeling guilty because she’s spying on Jacob.  Then her emotions turn to horror as she thinks he’s the killer.  When Jacob comes home, it switches to his viewpoint so I can get his feeling of shock–then desperation–as he tries to convince her of his innocence.
I don’t hop back and forth from one viewpoint to another in a scene. I stick with one character and perhaps switch POV once, if I think it’s necessary.  And I do try to use the POV of the character who has the most to lose.

But you can show a character’s emotions by using cues that the viewpoint character observes. It can be body language (her shoulders tensed), facial expressions (her mouth softened), tone of voice (her voice went high and reedy),  manner of speaking (she clipped out her words), or actions (she slammed the book onto the table).  Take it as a challenge to show the reader a character’s feelings without being in his or her head.

One more point I should make—the emotions of the characters are always crucial in a love scene. Otherwise it’s just a description of putting tab A into slot B.  Women writers are better at this than most men writers. (Ken Follett is a notable exception.)  One of my favorite examples of an inadequate love scene written by a man consists of these two sentences: “He climbed into bed.  He reached for her breast.”

If you’re oriented toward plot, don’t leave out the emotions of the characters as you tell your story.  And if the characters are what interest you most, make sure enough is happening in the story to keep the reader turning the pages.

Do you think of yourself as a plot-driven or a character-driven writer, and why?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More on Plot and Character

You have a better chance of selling to an editor if you fit your book into a particular subgenre.  Regency historical. Vampire. Small-town contemporary. Romantic suspense. Harlequin Presents.

Once you know your target market, your plot and characters must both work together in your story.

To be very basic, if you’re writing in any kind of romance, it’s unlikely you will have a hero who is a serial killer.  But in the suspense genre, Dexter has proved that you can do it in a suspense novel.

Sometimes if you do have a character with questionable traits or problems, you may be able to get away with using him if you don’t introduce his real problems immediately.  In one of my Harlequin Intrigues, What Child is This, I had a hero who had been adopted.  I wanted him to have a compelling reason to be searching for his birth mother and decided that if he had leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant, that would be a very strong reason for his search.  My editor hated the idea of giving my hero a serious disease.  I told her he was in remission and argued to keep the crucial plot element in the book.

Finally she relented, if I agreed to make sure the reader knew and liked the hero before she found out he had a fatal disease.  Oddly enough, it was okay for the heroine to think the hero was a drug addict before she found out what was really wrong with him.

I learned a lot about plot and character through my love of reading.  In my teens, one of my favorite authors was Sinclair Lewis.  He was brilliant at character sketches.  In just a sentence or two, he could get inside the personality of a small-town mayor or the head of a major corporation.  But he was much less adept with plot.  His stories moved slowly, often with little action, and eventually I stopped reading him.

Contrast that with the action-packed movies being produced today.  They serve up car chases, explosions and world-crushing meteors, bombarding the screen one after the other.  But mostly they don’t interest me unless they focus on compelling characters as well, and the action makes logical sense.

If you want to study some writers who do both plot and character with equal brilliance, try Stephen King or Dean Koontz, particularly his earlier works like Whispers, Lightning, and Watchers.  I know English teachers and devotees of literary fiction tend to sneer at them for being “popular.”  But there’s a reason for their popularity.  They deliver a great reading experience over and over.

Often a plot idea first sparks my interest in a story.  But I develop the characters as I work out the plot.

What if a man is murdered and his body disappears? Then we find out that his whole life has been a lie?  That’s the premise of my Harlequin Intrigue, From the Shadows. He’s not the hero of the story.  The hero is the detective trying to find out who murdered him.

Or what if you have a situation like the one Elizabeth Ashtree  conjured up in The Colonel and the Kid, where the hero’s son needs a heart operation to save his life.  But their home is in Russia where the proper medical attention is unavailable, and the only way the father can save his child’s life is to sneak him into the U.S.  What are his the gut-wrenching emotions?
And what if the heroine is a U.S. military officer, who will be breaking the law if she finds out his plan and doesn’t report it?

In my own work, I try to create the perfect hero and heroine for each story.  I ask myself, why are these people in this plot?  Or–who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?

In my Intrigue, Solid as Steele, the heroine is a psychic who sees the death of a murder victim in a dream.  Frightened, she calls her friends at the Light Street Detective Agency.  But the hard-bitten detective hero doesn’t believe in psychics and doesn’t think she can know anything about the murder unless she’s involved.  Still, they’re forced to work together to solve the crime, and as she uses her special talents to give him more and more information, he’s forced to change his mind about psychic abilities.  Complicating their relationship is their guilt that they were attracted to each other before her husband was killed.

Even as I work out my plot and plan the characters, the people don’t come fully alive for me until I start writing the book.  It takes me about three chapters to get into their heads deeply enough to know how they will react in each situation they face.  And as I write, I may go back and fill in more about their character so the reader can understand them better.  Still, I try never to overload any one part of the story with too much background. “Character development” should never be the only reason for a scene.  Each scene between your characters has to move the plot forward toward an ending that will satisfy the reader.

What writers do you admire? Or which authors made you want to become an author?

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Integrating Plot and Character

Never separate plot and character.  As you decide on the book you want to write, you must consider them at the same time because you will want certain characters for the plot you are creating.  Or a certain plot for the characters you have in mind.

Whichever you think of first, you must develop them together because there’s a synergy between these two elements of your story. You might think of a great story about a man who’s living alone in a mountain cabin and is visited by space aliens, but what’s he doing in that cabin?  Why is he alone?  How is he going to deal with little green men knocking on his door?  And the larger question–is the reader going to believe his reactions?

Let’s consider the beginning of your thinking process and the steps you go through when you start a book.

Even if you’re a completely right-brained writer, and you work very intuitively, the steps are in there somewhere.  You just might not consciously think about what they are.

Because I’m a very left-brained, or logical, writer, I can describe my primary considerations before I wrote my first werewolf book, KILLING MOON.

For years I had an idea in mind.  What if a werewolf detective used his wolf senses to solve crimes?  The main character Ross Marshall, came to me first. A macho werewolf filled with angst about his relationship to humanity.

His specialties are tracking missing persons and sneaking into environments where a man couldn’t easily go.  But by the same token, he’s got the disadvantage of sometimes being a wolf at the wrong place and the right time.

Once I knew enough about Ross, I began plotting his story. In KILLING MOON, Ross is tracking a serial killer.  He also wants to investigate his genetic heritage, which brings him into contact with the heroine, a physician who works at a genetics lab.  She’s got her own problems because the lab is being sabotaged by someone.  Ross and Megan are drawn to each other, but she knows there’s something strange about him, and he’s fighting his attraction tooth and claw because he doesn’t want to drag a woman into the kind of miserable life his mom led with his low-life werewolf dad.

Five years ago, Ross tore out the throat of a serial killer the police wouldn’t go after, and he’s sworn never to kill again.  Then the killer he’s currently stalking captures Megan, and he’s forced to break his vow to save her life.

In my planning process, I gave my hero internal and external problems to solve. And I also designed a heroine with traits that pulled him toward her and at the same time pushed him away.

Once you have a basic idea, you need to decide on your focus.  What kind of book are you writing? For example, I considered making KILLING MOON the first book in a detective series. Then I realized I’d be better off going with romantic suspense, since I wanted the romance to play a big part in the story. This meant I couldn’t keep the focus on Ross Marshall in subsequent books. But he could play a strong secondary role in other books about his brothers and cousins. And his cousin, Cole Marshall, is the hero of my recent indie release, DARK MOON.

Which do you usually think of first–plot or character? And why?

This is an enormous subject. More next time.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Do You Get There from Here?

Writing a novel takes a lot of skills.  You have to create characters the reader cares about and a fantastic plot full of conflict.  Then you must get a lot of other elements right such as pacing, setting, and dialogue.  You probably have to research some aspects of your story.  And you’ve got to make sure your grammar and punctuation don’t yank the reader out of the world you’re creating.

But there isn’t one right way to do it.  As I’ve studied the craft of writing and talked to other writers about their methods, I’ve been struck by how different the process can be for each of us.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences often have to do with left brain/right brain issues.

The left side of your brain is the logical side.  (A good way to remember this is that they both begin with the letter “L.”)  The right side is the more intuitive side.

All of us do use both sides of our brains.  But how we approach the writing process has to do with which side is dominant.  For me, it’s the logical, left brain side, which means that I want to outline my books before I write them.  I want a clear roadmap of where I’m going.

Writers who plunge in and start writing are more right brained.  But even when they haven’t worked out the whole plot before they begin, at some point they must figure out the incidents of the story in order to complete the project.

Each of your own books should start with something that fascinates you.  Perhaps it’s a character whose story you are burning to tell.  Or maybe it’s a brilliant plot twist.  Or perhaps it’s an issue ripped from the headlines–like  a man plotting mass murder in a movie theater or the governor of a state willing to do anything for money.

For me, a book usually begins with what I think of as a “cool idea.”  It can be a character, a plot point or a combination of the two.

Take one of my Decorah Security books, Dark Moon.  What if a rich man’s daughter is kidnapped and taken to a slave ship?  And what if the only person who can find her is a werewolf?

For my Harlequin Intrigue, More than a Man, I was thinking about a man who had lived for more than 500 years.  What would his life be like?  What problems would he encounter that would be totally unique?  Would he be afraid to love because he knew that he’d always lose his partner?

In Her Baby’s Father, another Harlequin Intrigue coming out this month, I started with the idea of a woman whose lover was murdered, leaving her pregnant.  As the book begins, she’s in labor and driving herself to the hospital in a snowstorm.  When her car crashes, she knows she’s going to die.  But angels send her back in time to the day she met the man she loved, and she’s given a second chance to keep him from being murdered.  Can she convince him he’s in danger without making him think she’s crazy because of her odd behavior?

It’s important to remember that the story you are writing is not reality.  It’s a world you create.  But you must make it look, sound, feel, taste and smell real to the reader.  You do that by paying attention to every detail from characters and plot to setting and dialogue.  Yet some details are more important than others.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of picking up a book and starting to read–then giving up after a few pages or a few chapters.  Why?  Probably because you didn’t like the plot or you couldn’t connect with the characters.

Choosing a subject for your book should be the most right brain part of your whole process.  You must love the idea of your story.  It must turn you on.  It must be an idea that you are dying to write.  If it isn’t, you’re not going to do a good job.  In other words, there’s no use picking an idea because it’s “In.”  You see cowboy books are in, so you decide to write one.  Only you don’t know a darn thing about ranches, and you hate horses.  Trying to write a ranch book would be like jumping into a pit of alligators.  Instead, think about the topics that work for you.

Ironically, the idea doesn’t have to be your own.  A few years ago I was working on a proposal for a multi-book contract, and the editor had rejected my third synopsis.  We had to come up with an alternative, and I asked her if she had any ideas.

She said, “I’ve been thinking.  She’s a virgin, and she’s pregnant.”

I said, “I love it.  How did it happen?”

She said, “Artificial insemination.”

That was the beginning of Amanda’s Child, one of my own favorite Harlequin Intrigues.  From that idea, I built a whole story.

When you think of a story you want to write, do you come up with the plot first or the characters or a cool idea?  And do you plunge in or work on an outline before you start to write?

One person who comments can win a CD copy of my Carina Press novella, Dark Magic.  But please, if you want to be eligible for a book, include an e-mail address or your Twitter handle so I can contact you easily.  If you’d prefer not to make your e-mail address public, send it to rebecca@rebeccayork.com with Subject: “How Do You Get There from Here?” Blog.

                                                         Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

   Book Signing at the 2012 RWA Conference