Plot Driven or Character Driven?

What comes first when you set out to tell a Story?

The kind of plot you want to tell or the lead character you have in mind?

This question is the equivalent of that old debate about whether something is plot driven or character driven. The distinction is meaningless really as a character’s actions are what determine the plot and the plot is the sum total of a character’s actions.

But what can be helpful when you are in the early stages of crafting a global story or editing the one you have is to think about what excites your personal imagination. What kind of “What If?” do you like best? Some of us think in terms of external “What ifs?” while others of us think in terms of internal “What ifs?” Figure out which kind of person you are and this will help you immeasurably. Either way works. And finding the most exciting What if? will also be the key to creating your story’s inciting incident…the event that throws your protagonist’s life out of balance.

If you are an external “What If?” thinker, you are probably a comic book fan or an action fan or a mystery fan or a horror fan or a thriller fan. You fantasize “What ifs?” like “what if a tidal wave hit New York in the middle of a U.N. assembly?”

If you are an internal “What If?” thinker, you are probably a coming of age novel, love story, redemption story, education story, or family saga kind of fan. You think of “What ifs?” like “what if a woman’s husband leaves her on the same day that she finds out she has Stage Four ovarian cancer?” “What if a mother didn’t love her son, but refused to acknowledge it?”

The first “What If?” is the thinking of someone who wants to write, for lack of a better expression, a plot driven Story. The second example is someone who wants to write, again for lack of a better expression, a character driven Story. One loves Big Archplot while the other favors Minimalism.

The truth though is that it just doesn’t matter what kind of “What if?” you dream of exploring. The best “plot driven” Stories have compelling protagonists who chase subconscious internal objects of desire while they are also trying to get the President of the United States out of the U.N. before the tidal wave hits. And “character driven” Stories also require compelling quests for conscious external objects of desire, remission from cancer for example, while the lead character struggles with deep subconscious internal objects of desire like the need to attain some kind of meaningfulness before death.

STRUCTURE and CONTENT are intimately related. No matter how you slice it, the Archplot and Miniplot STRUCTURE GENRES require a foundational quest, which in turn requires an External conscious and Internal subconscious object of desire. The ways in which the writer reveals those external and internal objects of desire is by making crucial choices.

Screenwriters often speak of these choices as Storyline A and Storyline B.

This is just another way of looking at their External and Internal genre choices. If the storyteller is telling a conventional murder mystery, the “A” Story would be the actual investigation…finding the killer and bringing him to justice. The External genre, the crime story, dictates the global object of desire. And the quest for justice that the lead character undertakes drives the global telling. The protagonist wants justice. He’ll get it or he won’t.

The “B” Story in a crime story is usually determined by the choice of Internal Genre that the storyteller makes. The “B” Story drives the theme or controlling idea. It’s what the whole thing is really about. Under the surface of the external crime genre, there is often another subconscious quest that the lead character/investigator/criminal undergoes. Keep in mind that this second quest is a deliberate choice by the writer. There are plenty of fun crime novels or films that do not have deep internal genres. Agatha Christie’s master detectives aren’t going on any internal quest in her stories. They are simply there to solve the crime.

In Robert Towne’s screenplay Chinatown, though, the lead character does have an internal quest, a “B” Story. Jake Gittes is out to “find the girl” but underneath it all he is out to prove to himself that he is capable of righting the wrongs of his past. He is out to beat the myriad forces in the world that are out to keep him from living a righteous life protecting the people he loves.

Gittes wins the “find the girl” external object of desire, but he does not win the internal “redemption” story. The bad guys win that one in the end. In fact, they’ve used Gittes to do their dirty work without his knowing and there’s not a thing he can do about it in the end. Not only have they killed the woman he loves they will take the innocence of a child.

Because Chinatown is a Crime Story, the investigation drives the Story on the surface. It’s only with multiple viewings of the film do you discover that Gittes is haunted by a case in his past…back when he was on the LAPD and covered the eponymous Chinatown. He’s asked at some point in the film about why he left the force and his reply is that he tried to protect someone and he failed. Back when he was a cop in Chinatown. His job was to do “as little as possible” but he refused. His meddling caused someone he cared about a great deal of pain if not her life. Towne wisely leaves the circumstances of that past trauma to the imagination of the viewer.

Jake Gittes doesn’t know why he’s decided to put his life on the line to help Evelyn Mulwray and her sister escape the clutches of Noah Cross, but he does it anyway. What’s remarkable is that we, as the viewer of the movie, never question why he makes that choice.  Because Robert Towne did such a materful job revealing Gittes’ deep character while he toils away toward his conscious object of desire—his wanting to find the girl—the audience is able to intuit his need. It’s a need we all have.

Subconsciously, Gittes wants to redeem himself. To prove that his choice to help people is not in vain, that his deeds result in “truth” coming into the world. He exposes infidelities for a fee, what he calls “an honest living.” This is why he gets so deeply invested in the Evelyn Mulray case. He wants to prove to himself that he has the power to bring truth to the world and punish those who trade in deception, to redeem himself from his past failure in Chinatown.

Gittes may not know why he put his life on the line, but we do.  Gittes needs to uncover the truth so that he can bring justice to the world.  Like the Cerberus hellhounds who guard the Underworld, the authentic Jack Gittes (the self-actualized Jake Gittes) is a sentry for justice. He does what we know our better selves would do in the same circumstances. He fights for what’s right.

The Story is so great that even when Gittes fails, we never question his decision to try. He didn’t get what he wanted (to save the world), but he got what he needed (a better understanding of the world).

That “B” Story is so deeply embedded inside of the “A” story that it is almost invisible, as subconscious to the viewer as it is to Gittes. A first viewing of the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of deep sorrow for Gittes and the corrupt world he lives in. That feeling of empathy is the result of Towne not hitting the viewer over the head with the “B” Story. Instead he expertly drops hints in dialogue and description that make the catharsis palpable at the end. He never comments on the internal quest. But after multiple viewings, you can see and hear exactly where the screenwriter, Robert Towne, placed the critical mechanics of the “B” Story.

The perfect modulation of the “A” and “B” Stories reveals the ultimate theme/controlling idea of the global Story. Chinatown’s controlling idea is very much in keeping with the Director of the movie, Roman Polanski’s view of the world. Evil Reigns, to fight it is folly.

This post concludes the Genre component of The Story Grid.  Next up is creating the very practical 30,000 foot editorial view, The Foolscap Global Story Grid.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



15 comments on “Plot Driven or Character Driven?

  1. The terms Internal and External make so much more sense than “plot driven” or “character driven”, than “A Story” and “B Story”. From a creative perspective, far more meaningful.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    My reaction was similar to Joel’s – using “External” and “Internal” gave me a clearer perspective on the difference between and the intertwining of plot and character. Shawn, this has been quite an education! I’m really looking forward to the Foolscap Global Story Grid.

  3. Will Douglas says:

    That movie says a lot about Polanski.

  4. Steve says:

    Can’t wait for the next post

  5. Jessica says:

    It feel like my story is exposing my soul. It’s almost like I’m being turned inside out…I love it.
    Steven Pressfield’s books The War of Art, Turning Pro and Do The Work have helped support me on that level.
    Thank you for the invaluable knowledge and wisdom Mr. Coyne, it’s much appreciated.

  6. Sonja says:

    This was great…I actually struggled with this awhile back.
    I thought I was an internal type of writer, trying to write a love story, but I simply could not write that as the central idea because my external story kept taking over. I never articulated it like this, but it’s clear now that I’m plot driven vs. the character driven. It seems obvious, but I needed this insight!

  7. Jule Kucera says:

    What a great movie and a perfect explanation. And foolscap is up next! (Carly Simon is now singing in the background.)

  8. PJ Reece says:

    I’ll bet that the story which is simply plot-driven doesn’t give the audience their money’s worth. There’s got to be a reason we’re so addicted to fiction, and I suggest it’s the release we get from the “truth coming into the world.” As Seth Godin says, “We’re all liars.” Truth kinda sets us free. Whay say ye?

    1. There are times when I’m looking purely for external story, just as there are times I want pie rather than a salad.

      I started reading the Bourne books looking for pure action/adventure external story. Once I realized how much internal plot was there, I had to go back and start over.

      Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Isaac Asimov: I love many writers whose characters rarely change, have very little internal story. When I want to dig into a mystery I read Chandler, even Dick Francis who found that balance between Christie’s pure puzzlers and Chandlers far more internal stories.

      But I’m pretty sure a lot of people are completely delighted with a solidly entertaining external story with zero or near-zero internal. (In action movies, it’s pretty much the norm, isn’t it?)

      1. PJ Reece says:

        Joel… thanks for that. It would seem to be true what you say about the purely external story. But I’m not entirely sure that’s all there is to it. For instance… in a raw adventure story, does the protagonist not risk his/her life? How can that not be an internal story? What is that character doing by putting their life on the line? Something about corporeal death is attractive. Why does a person climb a mountain? Answer: to free himself from the trap of his everyday life. By risking our lives we are trying to escape our human condition. Aren’t we? In any event, although an action story may be entertaining, it won’t be as memorable as it could be were it to include that B-story thread. Take “Rocky.” It won Best Pic (1976) because Stallone took on the inner struggle. I`m willing to go out on a limb here and say that the best so-called action films all have that inner thread. There are plenty of mediocre stories out there, but as writers we’re not concerned with them. We can only only look to them as examples of stories that didn’t succeed as well as they might have. Cheers.

        1. The best action/adventure stories, whether book or movie, do exactly that: rope us in with the external excitement, then show us humanity.

          I’m just suggesting that there’s also a time for pure adrenaline without accessing my brain. No as a habit, not often even, but once in a while I just want to read something that moves so fast I can barely keep up, probably about a human so magnificent they seem superhuman, unflawed.

          And then, I’ll go back to reading about the troubled souls and their upward struggle because they remind me of me.

          It’s a bit like listening to Django Reinhardt, realizing that guitar did indeed have a god and it wasn’t Clapton, and instead of despairing, being inspired to go do my best anyway. That nearly superhuman hero who doesn’t deign to suffer inner turmoil is an image I want to see once in a while.

          1. Totally skipped your question: does an inner story exist in that case?

            I don’t know. If a story is not told, and not heard, does it still exist?

            If you wanna talk metaphysics, I can do that. But if you wanna talk writing and selling books, nope; when a godlike hero overcomes all through sheer willpower and wit and never shows a flicker of internal whateverness, there is no internal story, because it’s never told.

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      It’s strange to talk about truth coming out of fiction.

  9. Fawn says:

    Excellent. Had to bookmark this so I can return to it. Assuming this will turn into a book one day.

  10. amy cygan says:

    I couldn’t help but think of the poetry genre as I was reading this post.

    I’ve often noticed the best way to draw an emotion out of one’s reader is to paint a picture from almost a purely objective point-of-view. Sort of like the haiku masters who would observe something … then write down what they observed … but there was no “trying” to create emotion; there was no blatant stating of philosophy, etc. Rather, the image/action/ observance encapsulated and suggested the emotion/philosophy/message/contemplation inherent within. I see the “B” thread as achieving something similar, yes?? no??

    Perhaps, the most powerful “B” threads in fiction (or what have you) are the ones not stated, just “colored” in a way (say, through body language or actions, etc.) that allows the viewer to intuitively interpret on their own??? Or would this be too dangerous of a line to tread in fiction: the whole “not stating” things blatantly, but just through “clues” so to speak?

    BTW, I am really happy to have found this site (someone suggested you on Linkedin). I tend to be the type of person that researches (and researches and …) , then writes, because I dread the thought of having to revise a completed manuscript. You have given me a lot to think about with regards to how to take the next steps forward with my own writing.

    Immensely appreciative!

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