Here’s a question that frequently pops up in writers’ circles: are your stories character-driven or plot-driven?
Anyone who’s pondered this for longer than three seconds realizes the chicken-and-egg paradox at the heart of this misguided question: characters wouldn’t do anything without a plot, and a plot can’t exist without characters (the terms plot- or character-centered are probably more apt)*. It’s a false dichotomy, so don’t get yourself all bunched in a knot trying to figure the answer. Thinking in these terms will only lead you to ask the wrong questions.
ALL stories (yes, even those fluffy literary ones) are tension-driven. Once you understand this, crafting your story becomes so much easier.
So what is tension? It’s the taut thread of suspense that tugs your reader to the next page. That suspense is created in the space between your character and their unmet desire.
Two ingredients: a character and a burning, unmet desire.
(Although we’re discussing the latter today, don’t forget the importance of crafting a character your readers cares about; if they don’t care about the character, they won’t worry if she gets what she wants most.)
A quick summary of this idea courtesy Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James*:
A story isn’t driven forward by events happening but by tension escalating. Unmet desire equals tension. And only tension moves a story forward.
Since unmet desire is at the heart of a story, it’s critical to introduce your character’s driving desire early and clearly (and loudly, if necessary). Once your reader knows what your MC wants, they’ll keep turning pages to see if he gets it.
In The Boneless Mercies, April Genevieve Tucholke articulates the deepest desires of her MC, Frey, so well, there’s no room to doubt what’s driving Frey’s actions (and the story) forward.
Here’s Frey’s internal dialogue as she muses about her Norse-inspired cultural beliefs:
A person was never truly dead as long as someone, somewhere, remembered them. Memories made you immortal. This was why men went to war. Why they had climbed in their longboats and raided Elshland, before the gold dried up. They risked their short, mortal lives for the everlasting glow of immortality. A chance to be a hero in a bard’s song.
… I wanted to change my fate, to force it down another road. I wanted to stand in the river of time and make it flow a different direction, if just for a little while.
If I stayed on the Mercy path– this path of sad, inglorious, quick-and-quiet deaths– only the Mercies would hold Frey memories in their hearts after I died.
As I said: there’s no mistaking Frey’s unmet desire. She’s dissatisfied with her life as a mercy-killer, and wants to gain some form of immortality by preserving her memory in acts of glory.
Another note: This type of desire in itself builds empathy for your MC; after all, who doesn’t want to set their lives on a more glorious path? Who doesn’t want to be remembered after they die? When a reader can empathize with a desire, they’re more likely to care if it’s ultimately achieved.
In the above example, Tucholke clearly articulates her MC’s desire with the phrase “I wanted…” A few pages later, she does so again when Frey encounters the opportunity to fulfill her dreams by slaying a rampaging beast:
I wanted to fight something that fought back.
I wanted it more than I wanted a home and a family. I wanted it more than I wanted food and warmth and gold.
Wow. She wants glory more than food and warmth in a Scandinavian-inspired setting? Tucholke makes this desire an urge Frey– and therefore the reader– can’t ignore.
Tucholke continues to reinforce this desire throughout the novel’s first quarter:
I would try my hand at greatness, and see where it led.
I wanted to touch it. Taste it. I wanted it so deeply I thought my heart will swell up, claw its way out of me, and float away on the wind, cawing like a Sea Witch raven, a prayer caught in its beak.
Are there are other things Frey wants on her journey? Of course. She wants to stop mercy-killing, to keep her friends alive, to help others, and so on. These desires serve to create micro-tensions through the story’s middle; but ultimately, they serve the strongest drive that leads to the climax.
Create a great character.
Then give her something she wants more than anything.
What your reader will want more than anything is to find out if she gets it in the end.
*Sources: (everybody stop what you’re doing and read these!):
Boneless Mercies, by April Genevieve Tucholke, Simon & Schuster, 2018. pp 12-13, 23, 54.
James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. pp 10.
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