What do you think is the hardest thing for a writer to write? For many, it’s finding a way to connect the dots, or points of action in the plot. After all, your story cannot be non-stop action. (That is a very clumsy sentence, and I apologize.) When you start writing, maybe you begin with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Both are excellent ways to dip your toes into the pool of storytelling. However, with pieces of short fiction, you have only a small space to present your plot from inception to conclusion and that leaves no room for “downtime.” The action of the story will take place all at once. Maybe you excel at, and enjoy short story writing and you want to continue. If so, you can stop reading now!
If, however, you want to move into the world of long-form fiction, or novel writing, then you need to find a way to add and fill spaces between the action bits. You can imagine your storyline as a radio wave, with peaks and valleys rising and falling as each conflict presents itself and is resolved. Or as a set of stairs where the action climbs then levels off, then builds again and finally reaches the top floor or conclusion.
A story has two basic engines that drive it along: the characters and the plot. A character-driven story is one in which something about the character’s essential self, leads to a particular action or event in the story. For example, your female lead may be fiercely independent which causes her to reject help from friends or family to overcome the obstacle she is facing. Her individuality is going to greatly effect the way the action proceeds.
A plot-driven story is one in which the actions taken by the characters in a story result in a particular plot point. But in this case, the action is driving the plot, not the qualities of the character’s personality.
Independent from that, external circumstances outside the characters’ control will influence both plot and character driven stories. For example, imagine that a super storm is about to hit the East Coast of the USA, your characters are trapped in harm’s way, how will they survive? The actions they take as well as the motivations that impel them are the two aspects of telling the tale. Tension builds as the storm approaches, but for a time, at least, there is not much going on. If you excel at writing action scenes, these downtimes between crises might prove to be daunting. What to do?
The lulls between these sequences of action are the perfect times the time to explore your characters’ personalities. How are they managing in the situation in which they find themselves? Are their strengths or weaknesses being revealed? What are their motivations for acting/reacting the way they do?
Let’s take the super-storm scenario and suppose our main character is a nurse in a hospital in Savannah, Georgia – a city directly in the path of the storm. Let’s call her Ellen. The patients of the hospital need to be evacuated and Nurse Ellen is selected to stay to the bitter end. The suspense in the story escalates as the weather rapidly deteriorates. Only a few of the patients are left in the hospital with just one doctor and Nurse Ellen. The water is rising and the winds are too high for the ambulances to get back for one last trip. The 6 people left behind will have to hunker down and try to ride it out. A character-driven story now asks the writer to show Nurse Ellen being a strong, capable leader or alternatively to show her falling apart as she realizes she may never see her husband and young child again. We may even see a little bit of both. Nevertheless, during this time of waiting, Ellen’s inner self is revealed.
Now is the time for meaningful dialogue among the characters. For our purposes, let’s suppose that Ellen is going to shine during the crisis and not fall apart. She will care for and comfort the few remaining patients. Perhaps the doctor is the one coming unglued and Ellen has to deal with him panicking and not pulling his weight! The way she speaks, the words she chooses, and her movements will show the reader what kind of person she is. The writer may include Ellen’s thoughts and internal conflict by describing her facial expressions and body language. She may frown, bite her fingernails, twirl a lock of hair, rub her face, wring her hands… things like that. And even though the action is at a low point, the story moves forward. We the reader, are engaged while we wait for the next disaster to strike!
With a look inside the mind of the characters, they become real, fully immersed in the story and the conflict. And without it, they remain generic and unrelatable. It’s hard to sympathize with them, to root for them to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the face of danger. By using the space between the dots, we fully develop the depth and breadth of an excellent story.
Now, I’m off to write a disaster story, starring Nurse Ellen! Happy writing!