Given that there are “plot-driven” novels and “character-driven” novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if your characters are strong enough, you don’t need a decent plot and vice versa, but is that really the case?
Murder mysteries, for example, are highly plot-driven. They are all about who killed whom and how and why, and the reader can easily become sufficiently hooked on a good mystery that the characters are allowed to be fairly two-dimensional and uninteresting. But if we consider all the famous mystery stories, they have something in common – a fascinating, flawed, quirky sleuth. Certainly, there isn’t much character development in these stories: Hercule Poirot never acquires modesty and Columbo never cleans up his act; but if the plot is what drives us through that episode, it is the character who brings us back to the next.
The problem I seem to have is more the opposite. After lots of practice here at Elmowrites and elsewhere, I’ve honed my skills at writing short stories, but when it comes to a novel, I find the whole question of plot daunting.
It’s easy enough to tell a story: “this happened, then this, then that”, but to write a decent novel, you need PLOT. You need progression, development, cause and effect. There must be sub-plots, each of which needs all of that too, and the subplots must be nicely tied in with the main plot to create a cohesive whole.
Many story ideas boil down to “what if” questions: what if a child psychologist who had recently been shot treated a boy who could see dead people? What if an asteroid were about to hit earth? What if a crazy German dude took over a building that just happened to house a rebellious NYPD detective’s wife? What if I watched too many Bruce Willis movies?! (I haven’t seen the latest yet, looks like I may have to wait for the DVD now)
But a PLOT is about more than that initial question. A PLOT needs the author to add tension and excitement and near-misses; a PLOT requires us to build our hopes for the characters from a carefully-crafted sequence of successes and failures.
I’m beginning to understand why writers need to study novels as well as movies. In plot terms, most movies are short stories, novellas at best. (This is probably why some of the best movies of all time are based on short stories: Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain… the list is long and distinguished). When great (and not-so-great) novels are turned into movies, fans generally grumble about all the stuff that’s been missed out, and this is why. You just can’t fit 80,000 words into 2 hours of screen time.
A short story still needs a plot. Even Bruce has to fail a few times before he finally succeeds. Especially when someone’s provided enough budget to fly a fighter jet into a freeway. But it doesn’t need to have quite so many complexities as a novel, and this richness is what a good plot provides.
So, if you’re telling your better half what you did today, no plot is no problem, but if you’re trying to land a publishing contract, better hunt one down!