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Elements Explained: Story Engine

I am finally back from my maternity leave and ready to dig back into this blog with some insights on writing. In my short "break" I thought a lot about what was driving my novels and what I enjoyed reading from other's works. Essentially, the story engine comes down to two basic elements: Plot and Character. As with everything else in the writing world, there are ups and downs to each of these story engines, and neither is better or worse than the other. It all really depends on what kind of story you're trying to tell. Thinking about the message you want to get across is most important when planning what's going to be driving your story. 

A plot-driven narrative is going to have a lot of action, the main character might be important, but it isn't so much about them as a person. It's more focused on what actions they're taking. Plot-driven narratives tend to lean more towards the action/thriller spectrum of genre. We see this in popular novels like "The Martian" by Andy Weir, The Harry Potter series, or most anything by Dan Brown. The story relies on what's going to happen next.

When writing a plot-driven novel, you have to put a lot of thought into the planning stages. Knowing where your story is going next is going to make it a lot easier to write. You're going to want to think heavily about setting and pacing. You can't have your hero go on a whole adventure in five pages and then have the rest of the book just reflecting on that time. That would make the book inherently character-driven. While there can and should be some emotional journey your character is going on, it isn't going to be the main focus of the book. It isn't going to be what's keeping your readers engaged.

On the other hand, a character-driven novel is exactly what it sounds like– powered by the character's inner workings. This isn't to say that there's no plot or that nothing happens, but the driving force is going to focus on the arch of character development and not so much what they do externally. These stories tend to fall more into the literary or romance genres. This can be seen in popular books like "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" by Gabrielle Zevin, "House in the Cerulean Sea" by T.J. Klune, and basically everything Ann Patchett writes. This is also what I tend to write as a contemporary fiction author. 

When writing a character-driven narrative, you don't have to plan as much. Your prep time is going to be spent thinking about what you want your characters (and sometimes readers) to learn along the way. You might make a character outline instead of a plot outline. This lends itself more to a pantsing method (though you can also be a plotter and write character-driven work!) 

One of the reasons I'm drawn to character-driven books is that I use reading to better understand people and better understand my own emotions. My husband on the other hand uses reading as an escape from reality and is more drawn to plot-driven stories. This philosophy of story engines takes place on a spectrum, meaning that all stories have some elements of character and some elements of plot. That's what makes it a story and not an academic essay. Most books tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or the other, but there are some that can be argued for both sides. 

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn is no doubt plot-driven, however, the complex characters and secrets of their inner thoughts make for very compelling internal change as well. We want to know what makes the characters tick and why they're doing what they're doing as they further the plot. On the other side, "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng is all about the internal workings of her characters yet the mystery of how the fires keep the plot interesting and the reader hooked. There aren't hard and fast lines when it comes to story engines, the only goal is that something is pushing your story forward and you aren't just writing in circles. 

For both character and plot-driven stories you can look back on the idea that there are only seven stories being told or to any of the traditional archetypes for character. (I'll talk more about both these concepts in another blog.) Using these concepts as a base can help you figure out what is powering your story and how you want it to connect with your reader. 

Starting my new character driven life

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