When you start a new story, which comes first: plot or character? Every writer I’ve ever meet seems to fall into one of these two categories. Their mind inevitably turns first to one or the other.
I am without question a plot-first writer. It has happened—more than once, I might add—that I’ve sent the opening scenes for a brand new story idea to a critique partner and they’ve come back and said, “Um…I thought this was a romance.” To which I respond, with just a hint of attitude, “It is. Absolutely. Why do you ask?”
The answer invariably encompasses some variation of: “Because there’s no romance, no hint of relationship whatsoever, in there. But you’ve got lots of action.”
Honestly, I’m surprised by that, every time. Because I felt the emotion as I wrote the scene. How can it not be on the page? Just to prove them wrong, I go back and re-read what I’ve written and sure as ants at a picnic, there is action all over the place, but no romance, no emotion, none.
I only have half the ingredients for a solid novel.
I have writer friends with the opposite problem. They write beautiful, heart-wrenching emotional scenes. But there is absolutely nothing happening. The characters are just sitting there, emoting all over the place, while the plot goes, well, nowhere.
So how do we find the happy medium? How do we keep our strengths, but shore up those weaknesses to draw out and create both components of a good story?
One of the best tools I’ve found is a book by Jeff Gerke called, “Plot versus Character –A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction,” from Writer’s Digest Books.
Gerke says we’re all naturally better at one or the other, so his goal is to “help you with the part you’re not naturally good at.” (page 21)
For me, he did that and more. It is one of the most helpful writing books I’ve read in years. His step-by-step approach made fuzzy, mystical concepts suddenly become concrete and crystal clear. I highly recommend it. It has made a huge difference for me.
Have you ever thought about this? Are you a plot-first or a character-first writer? How do you balance the two? I’d love to hear your thoughts.