There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories in existence. That means not all writing advice will be a good fit with the story we’re trying to tell.
An important step in knowing which advice to heed and which to ignore is being aware of the type of story we’re writing, specifically how we focus on the plot arc versus the character arc. So let’s talk about how we can discover our storytelling focus and what it means for our writing.
What Is Focus in Storytelling?
“Focus” refers to which arc—plot or character—gets more attention, has a bigger impact in our story, and/or is more closely tied to our story’s essence. Even if our story is fairly balanced, either our plot arc or our character arc is likely to have more of the focus in the story.
The focused arc might have a bigger influence on what the story feels like it’s about. Or it might involve a bigger overall change than the other arc. Or it might simply be the main thrust of the story while the other arc is more like a subplot.
A balanced plot-focused story still includes a major character arc, but the character’s internal change doesn’t determine the direction or essence of the story as much as the plot does.
In a heavily plot-focused story, the character’s internal/emotional journey (if it exists at all) is minor and might be triggered by a subplot rather than be tied to the main plot.
A balanced character-focused story still has a strong plot arc, but the essence of the story lies more in the character’s choices with those events and dilemmas.
In a heavily character-focused story, plot events might exist just enough to help reveal the character’s issues and/or force them to change.
How Can We Tell Which Arc Has Focus in Our Story?
Obviously, we might be able to tell what type of story we have just by being in tune with our writing. But if we’re not sure—especially if our story is more balanced between the arcs—or if we want to verify that our draft matches our goals for the story, we can ask ourselves:
- When thinking about what made us want to write our story, do we think more about the cool plot events…or about our character’s emotional struggle?
- When describing our story to others, do we talk about what happens…or how events affect our character?
- Most importantly, which could we change more easily without affecting the essence of our story: our character’s choices and growth…or the plot events that cause our character’s struggle?
If we chose the first answer for each question above, our story is probably plot focused. But if we chose the second answer in each, our story is more likely to be character focused.
For example, if…
- our original inspiration was to write a story about a character overcoming addiction, and
- we describe our story through the lens of how they struggle with addiction, and
- we could easily change the plot details of their addiction (how they got hooked, the obstacles they face, etc.) without changing the essence of their struggle…
…then we probably intend to write a character-focused story. And once we know our answers, we should keep that intention in mind through our drafting, editing, and publication process.
Note, however, that if our answer to the third question doesn’t match the first two, our story draft may not be matching our intentions (unless our story is strongly balanced, in which case, that question can be difficult to answer). In case of a mismatch, though, we might need to step back and reanalyze our approach to the story.
How Can This Understanding Help Us?
In addition to being able to judge how well our story matches our intentions, knowing the focus can help us recognize when advice won’t apply to our story. If we have a plot-focused story, all the tip-filled blog posts and feedback suggestions about character arcs might not be helpful to us and might even make us question our writing skills.
On the other hand, if we have a character-focused story, all the advice about including a strong villain or antagonist plot might make us worry our story will be boring. In other words, we should give ourselves permission to ignore the advice that doesn’t apply to our style—unless we decide it works for the story we’re trying to tell.
Also, understanding the focus can help us approach our marketing for the story (including query or back-cover blurb). If we have a character-focused story, our book’s description might only need to include just enough plot detail to clarify the character’s struggles.
Or if we have a plot-focused story, we’d know not to spend many words on the character’s internal issues. Instead, we might just label their internal perspective in their character “tag” (cranky detective, hopeful student, etc.).
Of course, we can’t always control others’ expectations, so using the right marketing focus isn’t a guarantee to avoid reader disappointment. (Check out my companion post to this one on how the new Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve is an interesting example of a character-focused story that was expected by some to be more plot focused.) In most cases, however, our marketing is the best way to lead reader expectations in the direction we want.
Our story is unique, and we don’t want to feel pressured to follow guidance that doesn’t fit the story we’re trying to tell. With the right understanding of our story, we’ll know when to listen to others’ advice and when to listen to our own instincts. *smile* Do you have any questions or insights about storytelling focus and how a better understanding could help our writing (and publishing) process?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.
Sieran Yung says
Hey Jami! This reminded me of the blog post where I first met you! It was also on plot- vs character-driven stories. Somewhere along the way, either on that post or a later post, you suggested that what I have might be a plot-driven but character-focused story, so I still remember that vividly, haha. I’ve been thinking of the opposite kind of story, the character-driven but plot-focused story…My favorite sci-fi book I’ve read so far, Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, sounds like this. Many, if not most, of the story events happened because the protagonist, the android Andrew Martin, chose to change his life in profound ways. Andrew Martin is probably one of the best developed characters I have ever seen in science fiction!
Yet, from what I perceive, the essence of the story isn’t about Andrew Martin or his personal growth arcs, despite how much I love him. The story is ultimately about how the society views robots, how conservative and rigid-minded many people can be, how deeply distrustful many humans can be towards A.I.s, even when the robot in question is clearly benevolent, clever, helpful, and creative. On a grander level, you could see this as a general critique against people who are so close-minded and judgmental, so xenophobic, so reluctant to see those who are different from them as equals.
Another huge thing that Positironic Man is about, is the question of what makes one human. Why is it that Andrew Martin has so many human traits, such as kindness, compassion, desires and ambitions, sadness, anger, fear, and joy, the ability to communicate and create intelligently, yet many people still can’t accept him as a real, legitimate human citizen, just because he wasn’t made of organic carbon matter?
Does this sound like a character-driven, plot-driven story to you too?
P.I. Barrington says
Great article, Jami!
Jami Gold says
Thanks for checking it out, P.I.! I hope it’s helpful. 🙂
V.M. Sang says
Oh, how refreshing to have someone give permission to ignore the guidelines.
Jami Gold says
LOL! Yes, I’m a strong believer of nuance. 😉
Most advice has a core of truth, but that doesn’t mean it will be helpful to us or our story specifically. So I try to focus more on finding that core nugget of “why does this advice exist?” and asking whether that nugget of truth applies to any certain situation.
I have posts on my blog digging into this idea more, such as whether we should follow the advice to “write every day” and so on. Let me know if you’d like me to share the links, and thanks for stopping by!
Jami Gold says
Thanks once again for having me here as a Resident Writing Coach! If people find this topic helpful, my companion post on my site today goes into more information: https://jamigold.com/2021/11/storytelling-expectations-character-vs-plot-arcs/ 😀
Catrine Kyster says
What an interesting post! I wonder if a story, e.g., within historical fiction, may also be setting focused in addition to the character or plot focus?