Tag Archives: Plot

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.


The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.

Story Plots

Post-it stickers on a board

Story Plots:

Much has been written about the total number of plots out there—ranging from three to twenty, or more. Although I think that this sort of discussion is moot, if not outright silly, the actual plots that it throws up, isn’t:

1. The Pursuit: In this type of plot the chase defines the story’s structure and character relationships. The chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased, for this to work properly, and for tension to be maintained. (The Fugitive).

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by pursuing her to the ends of the earth if needs be. (Taken).

3. The Adventure: The Hero travels to strange and exotic places and experiences equally strange and exotic events. The Hero typically goes off in search of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well. (Raiders of the Lost Arc).

4. The Quest: The protagonist undertakes a journey to acquire or protect something of exceeding value. The story usually charts the character’s vicissitudes and growth during this journey. (Lord of the Rings).

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It typically involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth, and, possibly, redemption through a sacrificial act. (Dangerous Liaisons).

6. The Revenge: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist.(The Count of Monte Christo).

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person. (Face Off).

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away. (The Shawshank Redemption).

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously under gunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person, but a force of nature which threatens the existence of the protagonist. (Volcano, Rocky).

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution. (Ocean’s Eleven).

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story and invites the reader or audience to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death. (Sherlock Holmes).

What plot type do you think your story falls under? Is it, perhaps, a mix of two, or more? Answering these questions will help guide the development of your characters and action.


Plot types help to fashion the structure of your story by setting up certain generic expectations. This post suggests eleven such types.


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Story Maps


Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.


Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

Plot & Subplot – Two Sides of the Same Coin


Two Sides of the Coin

We all know that a story comprises of a plot and subplot. But what precisely is the relationship of one to the other? This is an important subject and one that warrants restating.

For the Love of Love

A useful way to see this relationship is to think of the plot as the outer journey the Hero undertakes in order to achieve the goal and save the day, and the subplot as the inner journey that unfolds in concert with it – in many ways the subplot provides some of the major motivation for the outer journey.

The Matrix

The Hero’s love interest, his/her relationship with friends and family, for example, provide some of the reasons the Hero typically risks life and limb to save the day. In The Matrix, Neo’s outer journey is to defeat these antagonistic forces that keep mankind slumbering in a false virtual world.

Neo’s inner journey is to realise that he is indeed the one person who can defeat the agents and machines and save mankind – a realisation that is a prerequisite for aquiring the power needed to perform this difficult task. His friendship with Morpheus and the rest of the crew, and the love he and Trinity feel for each other, personalise Neo’s outer journey and make it immediate.

Often, the inner and outer journeys intersect in one powerful scene. In The Matrix, Neo dies at the hands of agent Smith but is brought back to life through Trinity’s love for him – symbolised by a kiss.


The plot and subplot work together to create a cohesive story. The plot describes the outer journey while the subplot provides much of the motivation for it.


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Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

Image of yarn

Many Strands, One Yarn

We know that plot and subplot form the basis of all stories. What may be somewhat less obvious, however, is the precise relationship that exists between the two. How are these narrative elements knitted together, and what patterns do they form in stories? It may be useful to answer these questions in the following way: If plot is primarily concerned with the outer journey — the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal, the subplot(s) supports this journey by exploring its motivation, whether it concerns love, hate, generosity, revenge, or the like, and additionally tends to highlight theme, symbol, and the moral framework of the tale — the inner journey. In a finely crafted story, plot and subplot are woven together into a seamless whole.

The Role of Genre

Action-driven stories tend to spend more time on plot, although subplot is never ignored. Even frenetically paced films like Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol contain scenes which explore material centered on emotional content: Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), for example, is wracked with guilt over having failed to protect Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife from being killed in Budapest. This frames many of his actions and his refusal to remain with the team at the film’s conclusion. We later learn that Hunt’s wife is very much alive and that Hunt has known this all along but has kept it secret in order to protect her. This sort of inner layering forms part of the story’s subplot.

The Piano

Art-cinema inflected films, by contrast, tend to emphasize subplot over plot. In The Piano, for example, the plot, involves Ada’s (Holly Hunter) attempt to get back her piano and thus regain her “voice” and self-expression. The new owner of the piano, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is obsessed with Ada, promises to returns the instrument to her in exchange for piano lessons and sex. This thread of lust, obsession, and Ada’s own awakening sexual passion, overshadows the plot, primarily because the action is diminutive in comparison to the spectacle found in Action/Adventure films. By contrast, it is the subplot that contains the large and tempestuous emotions that drive the story forward.

Retaining Plot Prominence

In some genres, such as the conventional Love Story, plot and subplot may even occasionally appear to merge, becoming difficult to pry apart. Here, the “love” thread, which typically provides part of the protagonist’s inner motivation/subplot in the Action/Adventure genres, now becomes the outer goal (plot), itself. This genre typically centers around the attempt of lovers to get/stay together despite mounting obstacles. Strengthening the outer obstacles may prevent the subplot from usurping the role of the plot.

In Summary

The normal function of the subplot(s) is to support, motivate, and highlight the inner concerns of the plot by exploring the relationships and emotions of the protagonist and other characters through one or several story strands. Occasionally, and depending on genre, subplots appear to usurp the plot.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.