The tale of two stories: character vs. plot

January 21, 2010

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.”

Is having zero plot suddenly chic?

November 4, 2008

Hubby and I watched There Will Be Blood last night. I’ll probably be burned at the stake for saying this, but I hated it. I hated it so much that I had to watch The Sound of Music just to get the taste out of my mouth. It’s 158 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. 158 minutes of mindless wandering.

I have no problem with wandering provided I’m in the middle of Nordstrom’s with a no-limit credit card, but I don’t want to wander in a movie or a book. And this, to me, was a prime example of spending millions to watch characters stumble through a bunch of experiences that makes little sense, has no direction, and no resolution. In short – no plot. Obviously my artistic brethren in Hollywood disagree with me and believe in the merits of making a plotless movie. Then again, I’m of the opinion that Hollywood is easily distracted by shiny objects.

Speaking in a literary sense, there was nothing to get me to continue turning the pages, and I’m still ticked off with myself for not turning it off. After all, I do that to with submissions that cross my desk. In fact, I read so many wandering and aimless stories that I wonder if authors believe “going plotless” will be a new fad. My recommendation: Don’t bet the ranch on it. To get a reader to care about turning the pages, you need conflict, a dilemma, a sense of a linear direction.

Rosey Tosey is searching for a family heirloom, a brilliant blue diamond, and she discovers that the entire cast of Pirates of the Caribbean is also seeking the rare stone. What secrets are contained within the stone, and why does everyone who touches it turn into zombies who sing cabaret in the middle of Times Square?

As lame as this is, it’s a freaking plot. Blood is a lopsided affair – great acting and nothing else. Daniel Day Lewis can act the tail off a squirrel. Same goes for the rest of the cast. But they had zip to work with.

Please, dear authors, check to see if your stories wander and their only compass is a loose, ill-fitting theme. Remember, a theme is a unifying or dominant idea. It’s a topic, a representation, an idea, but it lacks specificity and detail. Dat’s da plot’s job.

Oh. And if you like plot-oriented movies, avoid There Will Be Blood.

Flip side to great ideas

August 14, 2008

I received this comment and thought it worth bringing to the forefront because this is an assumption I see all too often. This was regarding my post about great ideas.

“I was once told that it didn’t matter how well one wrote, it was the ideas that counted. Apparently, putting those ideas into words is what an editor is for. Fancy that. I never knew. And to think all this time I’ve wasted my time doing that writing thing.”

It reality, it’s both – plot and writing. Always has been. I’ve seen fabulous writing that had sinkholes for plots and fabulous plots with horrendous writing. Both of those are going to have a hard time getting published because you can’t have one without the other.

And, no, putting those ideas into words isn’t the editor’s job. Not anymore. Not with the vast amount of talent pouring out of the walls. This is a buyer’s market, and very few editors take the time and energy to turn lemon writing into lemonade – regardless of the plot.

For one thing, it’s too expensive and time consuming. For this to happen, that plot would have to be huge – blockbuster huge. However, if the plot were that huge, chances are the author would have an agent. The agent would have recognized the author’s literary shortcomings and fixed the work up either by hiring a ghostwriter at the writer’s expense, or have their interns rewrite the work so the agent could sell it.

If the author didn’t have an agent and somehow wangled a contract out of someone, the editing process can be like gargling with battery acid. Nothing is harder than trying to work with an author who doesn’t have strong literary chops. It’s achingly painful and slow. I’ve seen editors literally hold the hands of authors as they stumble through their rewrites. A friend of mine finally told one of her authors she needed to hire a ghostwriter to finish the project. The author was incensed and demanded to be released from her contract. This was a very big publisher – something that author will never get again.

Writing is like juggling, and each ball represents elements of writing – plot, writing structure, organization, character development, marketability, knowing the competition. Let one of those balls drop, and you can either have smallish or bigish problems. I can’t stress it enough – there is an art to writing, and it doesn’t stop at the end of the quill.

Special thanks to Jane Smith.

Plot – justa one-a more-a time-a…

August 11, 2008

I don’t know what it is, but lately I’ve been seeing an overwhelming number of queries that are all description and zero plot. I gotta have a plot, folks! I gotta know what the story is about!

It’s gotten so prevalent that I feel like letting Query Shark swim on over to my sinkhole and let her have a go with her razor-sharp shredders.

A plot consists of the following:

  1. Exposition – the information needed to understand a story. Identify characters and why we empathize with them
  2. Dilemma – the conflict
  3. Climax – turning point when characters try to resolve the dilemma.
  4. Resolution – events that bring the story to a close

If anyone is unclear of how this works, wander over to Publisher’s Marketplace and review the deals. There are shortie synopses listed with the sale. That is what authors need to emulate.

Descriptions like…

“My book deals with the heartbreak of living with an inverted bellybutton.”

…are as dry as week old Twinkies and tells me nothing. However…

Fifteen-year-old Gracie Bluejeans is ostracized by her best friends when they discover Gracie’s inverted navel. In Bellybuttons Gone Wild, Gracie, faces a summer of loneliness and plots her revenge against her so-called friends.”

…may not be in line for a Pulitzer, but I know what the book is about.

With those two sentences, the author can then build a brief synopsis, using the elements I mentioned above. Bada bing, bada boom.

One more time…

May 15, 2008

…with feeling. The purpose of a synopsis is to tell the specifics of your story. This is called THE PLOT. Way too many submissions come in with a description, which are generalized and nonspecific and give the overall idea of the story. Descriptions reside quite nicely in a cover letter and perform under the guise of a pitch.

Here is an example of a description masquerading as a synopsis:

Joe Landlubber is a charming carpenter who trades in his hammer and nails for a 50 ft. boat and sails around the world with his best friend Alex Scaredypants. It isn’t until they get out to sea that Alex realizes he’s deathly afraid at not being able to see land. To make matters worse, Joe and Alex discover that Joe’s buxom girlfriend, Vanessa VaVaVaVoom has stowed away with her seasick cat. The three of them sail to distant lands and have all kinds of hilarious adventures, including surviving a typhoon in Hawaii and a ripped sail. All this makes Joe wonder if he’s doing the right thing, but he decides to sail on anyway.

This would have been great if this had been sitting in a cover letter. But a synopsis better contain a plot, and it better answer the following:

1. Identify the characters – what makes us empathize with them?
2. What dilemma does he face?
3. Does the problem get resolved?
4. What is the outcome?

As written, this looks like it could be a good story, but there are too many unanswered questions, and I need those blanks filled in.
• What adventures do they have?
• What makes Joe wonder if he’s doing the right thing?
• Why did he decide to sail on?

Those answers could be contrived and cliché or soul-searching and compelling. But I need to know what they are in order to decide if this fits in with the types of works we publish.

So, one more time…make sure a plot is sitting in your synopsis and not a description. Otherwise, I may have to call upon my hit team of rabid surgeons who wield their scalpels on hapless submissions with deranged glee.

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