The tale of two stories: character vs. plot

It goes without saying that the biggest sphincter pucker in a writer’s life is the query letter. “Argh!! I  have a fabo story, but how do I get that across to the agent/editor?”

You pucker because you know that we decide whether to ask for pages based  on the strength of that query. So it has to rock. Far be it for me to tell anyone what the quintessential query letter looks like because there is no one right answer. There guidelines that have been discussed here and a gajillion other places. And yet, I’ve seen query letters that I loved and broke all the rules. What was the difference?

The authors knew how to pitch their stories. They had a great voice and understood that their stories were either character driven or plot driven, and closed in for the kill.

Plot driven

A plot driven story is about the movement of events within a story and how the characters influence those events. Obviously one still needs engaging characters, but the story doesn’t center solely on their emotions, desires, and personalities.

If you have a plot driven story, then make sure that you focus on that plot. But be mindful; plot driven queries have a tendency to get lost in trying to tell too much detail. A query is supposed to be short – 1 page. So keep it to the big picture. We understand there will be plot twists and such, but we need to see the main story.

There’s a great example of a plot driven query over on Kristin Nelson’s blog.

Character driven

Unlike plot driven stories, character driven stories are all about the characters. It is they who are the main dish in your personal banquet. Their personalities, motives, and desires are the yin and yang to the plot, and their actions are a driving force to influencing the story. The plot can be on the thin side because it’s secondary to the character(s).

So if you have a character driven story, that is where you must put your focus in your query letter. This is where voice plays a big role because you need to make them come to life and make us care about them.

Here’s an example that I lifted from one of our authors, CBS journalist Barry Petersen, author of the upcoming book Jan’s Story:

Even today, if you met her, you would be struck by her charm and beauty. Is it any wonder I am so in love with her?

And that is why this is a story not just about Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but also of our love for each other. People said we were an unusual couple. I only knew that we were lucky to find and to have each other.

And because of this disease there came the day when truly loving Jan meant saying goodbye and leaving her behind at an assisted care facility. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had to — for her.

There is no medicine and certainly no book that can help Jan as she drifts deeper into her Alzheimer’s Disease. And no book can help me as I lose her. That time has passed.

But this book will help others beginning or in the midst of this horrifying journey.

That is the heart of Jan’s Story…when we came together, celebrating how we lived and what we did. And then together battling this disease and, as it moves towards its end, how I fight on alone, without her but for her.

I couldn’t call his agent fast enough to order pages – through a used Kleenex. Barry instantly sucked me  into his world, his heart. And even though this is nonfiction, the same rules apply. This could have just as easily been a fictional query.

Just for giggles, let’s pretend that Barry had missed the mark and focused on the plot. It boils down to, “TV newsie goes through the agony of watching his wife sink into the depths of Early Onset Alzheimer’s.” This is a good tag line, but it’s not really much of a hook for an editor because there are a gajillion Alzheimer’s books crowding the shelves.

What is going to suck me in? What makes this unique? Ok, there are precious few books on Early Onset Alzeheimer’s, which really is a totally different set of books compared to Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. But what else?

I have no emotional link to the characters involved in the story, and the plot is too thin. Since I have no character references, I’ll be looking for the twists, the tension, the conflict, the choices that the character is given and what happens depending upon those choices. In short, you can’t sell this story based on plot. It must come from the heart.

It’s Barry’s personality, his motives, and desires that are the cause and effect to the plot, and his actions are a driving force to influencing the story.

I see too many queries that miss the mark between character vs. plot, and all I usually see is an incredibly thin plot populated with flat, dry characters. Little wonder I send out a rejection letter.

In short, define your story. Is it plot or character driven?

If it’s plot driven, concentrate on the movement of events that drive and define the story, and be mindful of sticking to the big picture.

If it’s character driven, let me see, feel, empathize, and understand your characters because it’s the difference between “send me pages,” and “no thanks.”

23 Responses to The tale of two stories: character vs. plot

  1. Voidwalker says:

    Would you say plot driven is noticably synonymous with third person POV, vs character driven being first person?

    As you explained the difference in querying from these standpoints, I believe you helped clarify that my most recent WIP is in fact plot driven, but my current is character driven. The former being written in third person and the later being first. I wonder if the POV’s have any bearing on this?

  2. Would you say plot driven is noticably synonymous with third person POV, vs character driven being first person?

    Not at all, Voidy. If the story is told in first person, then it could be very effective to have the main character exposing how the plot unfolds. Again, no rules here. It’s all about grabbing our interest.

  3. Karen Gowen says:

    Lynn, you have no idea how much I NEEDED this post. (I’ve been a lurker here for months, but today I have to say a big thank you!)

    My novel has been out since July. It is character-driven and this is what the readers who love it seem to enjoy and appreciate. However,I keep getting sucked into trying to explain it via plot. When people ask “What’s it about?” I give ’em a kinda thin, rambling plot line and eyes glaze over.

    Query letters aside, I am doing presentations and trying to interest readers in my novel. What’s the best way to do this when you have a character-driven work? Because everyone wants to know PLOT when they ask “What’s it about?” Or don’t they?

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    If they ask you what it’s about, try answering with WHO it’s about.

    I. Hate. Query. Letters.

  5. Scott says:

    Thanks for the ultimately timely post, since I’ve begun work on my query letter! It’s almost as if you, along with a few other people lately, have been reading my mind. Now, I’m going out to buy that winning lottery ticket . . . Hey, if three freaky coincidences can happen in a short amount of time, surely I can buy the winning lottery ticket!

    Well, back to my character driven query. Thanks again!

  6. Karen Gowen says:


    Who it’s about, I like that! Thanks.


  7. Ninja is right, Karen, and that’s exactly what I was going to say had I not been canoeing from my car to my office. We S. Californians do NOT understand rain, let alone torrential downpour.

    Concentrate on your what’s most important about your book – the plot or the characters. Otherwise they come off sounding reeeally dull. Good luck to you!

  8. Scott: I’m not the one with powers of divination. It’s the beagle. Her tail starts twitching and she howls at the moon. Then again, she does the same thing when that stud muffin of a Rottweiler walks by, too.

  9. Scott says:

    So, if the Beagle and the Rottweiler got frisky and puppies happened, would they be Reagles? Sorry, these things just happen sometimes! Let me know if her tail twitches when you mention the following words: Scott and winning lottery ticket! Thanks again for the post. It really helped clarify things for me.

  10. Phhshhhh…they’d be Bogglers, silly.

  11. A fantastic post! I think you’ve just rescued my query letter. I’m bookmarking *and* linking back to this one.

  12. Pelotard says:

    @NinjaFingers: I think the secret is to keep writing and refining your query letter until you go Aaaargh, I can’t stand this any more, let’s just get it over with, and then just type one as fast as you can. That’s what I did, and the result was much better than the meticulously polished stuff I’d been coming up with for two months. 🙂

  13. Steve says:

    I’m working on a YA novel, and I’m awfully afraid that it’s theme driven, rather than either character or plot. I started with a theme and built a plot around it. But as I started to write, a funny thing happened. In order for the plot to work realistically, certain elements of character were required of my protagonist. She had to be a certain kind of person with particular beliefs, habits, personal quirks, family background, etc. The more I wrote, the more interesting she became.

    So where is this heading? Plot? Character? either/neither/both? Or is this way of constructing a novel just bad writing?


  14. Steve, when it comes to creating your story, there are no rules. It’s you imagination at work, so how can it be wrong? I’ve seen plenty of plot/character driven stories, and they’re great. You just need to create your query letter that conveys both your character and your plot. Not hard.


  15. yearzerowriters says:

    This is a fascinating insight. As a UK-based writer for whom the query takes a different form, and includes a separate synopsis, may I ask whether – or, more likely, to what degree – the distinction carries over from pitch to synopsis? Or is the synopsis, for you, all about whether an author has got a grasp of mechanics (I often think of it like a company pitching for web or architectural work – you send off your drawings with your vision (query) and then you send the detailed spec to show you can deliver on that vision.

    Personally, I found the pitch you quote to be too sentimental – I would worry if that was the voice of the book that it would be just too demonstrative and thus lose its emotional power, and its ability to connect with the reader who matters – who in this case is the one who is maybe coming to terms with the emotional reality and needs to have connection with THAT, rather than to be confronted full on. And the sentence that ends “assisted care facility” – I’m sorry but that’s bathos. I have a feeling, though, that this reading of it may reflect differing tastes on either side of the Pond.

  16. Scott says:

    Lynn – Bogglers?? Too dang funny. Thanks for the morning laugh!

  17. catwoods says:

    Lynn, another fabulous post. It puts an answer to the oft asked question on Agent Query: what does my query need. Your examples show that different stories need vastly different queries.

  18. Yearz: the synopsis is different from the query letter. Here in the US, we get the query first. I see the full synopsis when I ask for pages – or a full proposal that includes the first three chaps.

    For me, the synopsis is “just the facts, ma’am.” By the time I get it, I’m already hooked.

    I found the pitch you quote to be too sentimental

    You may not be our target audience. If you were, your attitude would likely be different. Also, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another. No one can please everyone, yanno?

    For instance, I am one of only two people who hated The Bridges of Madison County. So what? It went on to make millions because, for some reason, it resonated with a very large audience. I have no doubt our book will as well.

  19. Thank you so much for this post! It made me feel a lot more secure about my writing and really pushes me to go on. Now I know I’m on the right track.

  20. […] defined whether their story is character or plot driven [ ]. They understand the elements that go into a […]

  21. Linda K Sienkiewicz says:

    May I write a brief post about your character vs plot idea and a link so others visiting my site can read this?

  22. Sure, Linda. Go for it.

  23. […] 13, 2010 by Linda K Sienkiewicz I found a terrific blog post on query letters written by Lynn Price, the editorial director for Behler Publications. Lynn says […]

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