Monday, June 28, 2010

How much plot does a book need?

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "How much of a plot do you need to write a book?"

As writers, we tend to put books in one of two categories - plot driven or character driven. We consider books like The Da Vinci Code to be plot driven. I'm totally blanking on a character driven book as well known as The Da Vinci Code. Sarah Dessen's books are character driven. I'm sure there's some really great, obvious example that I'm blanking out in my pregnant state.

Likewise, writers tend to either be "plot first" writers or "character first" writers. Neither is bad, it's just what you are. I'm "character first." My story ideas come to me as characters. Like when I first thought of The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt books, the idea was Skylar. A girl who's beautiful, who knows she's beautiful, and is now trying to figure out how to make her insides beautiful. The rest of it got pieced together as I thought through what was going to make Skylar need to change. I played the what if game. What if she suddenly realized that partying wasn't as harmless as she'd thought? What if something came between her and her best friend? What if she wound up falling for a guy who was absolutely perfect for her, and he happened to be the first guy who had zero interest in her?

Stories - good ones, anyway - are about characters. The ones we read and love, we read and love because of the characters. But who wants to read page after page of a character's inner monologue as they sit and drink tea? Not me. We need to write active characters. Things need to happen that challenge our character and force them to change. And for the "character first" writer, that's often how you end up creating your plot, just by thinking through what it is that's going to force their transformation.

The best books are a balance of both worlds. Like Gone with the Wind, which pairs a dynamite character like Scarlett O'Hara with a plot winding us through the Civil War. Or The Princess Diaries, which is a wonderful concept matched with Mia's quirky, insecure voice.

Hopefully this answers your question. Let me know if it doesn't.

Have a writing question? E-mail me here.


  1. To me, my stories are often character-driven. I can NEVER think of a story without getting a full image of the character...:)

  2. That's so cool! My guess is then that your characters leap off the pages.

  3. For me, I really don't like starting a book until I have at least a basic plot line, but I tend to focus on lots of (mostly heavy) emotions. I also don't feel like the book is really finished if my characters don't make absolute sense (which is probably why I've never completely finished a book).

  4. Character driven.. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?