What Kind of (Fiction) Writer Are You?


I wrote this for a textbook in progress, as a preamble to start a discussion on plot, and I’m not sure I want to include it. So here I am posting this, hoping whomever reads it can leave me feedback and let me know what they think. Did you learn something? Is this obvious? Too verbose? Disagree with some assertions? Love any kind of advice you have.

What kind of writer are you?

 

Premise First:

What’s Your Story About?

For premise-first writers, the answer will be something like, “It’s about a world where people are pressured to commit suicide once they reach the age of 37,” or, “It’s about a world ruled by cats,” “about a people struggling under an insane dictatorship,” or “about a family falling apart.”

How do you define Premise?

A premise is the situation which generates a story. When you hear any one of those story ideas, you could imagine a number of different exciting stories taking place.  In a world ruled by cats, you may write about an Alpha cat losing his nerve in a particularly gruesome mouse hunt and becoming the Zeta cat, or you may decide to tell a story about a domestic cat who seduces the daughter of a very important street cat, who doesn’t think the house pet worthy of his daughter and tries to get it killed. A premise is the world, the madness, the problem or the dysfunction that gives rise to a story or plot, and it is absolutely essential to begin building a plot and story, but a premise is a wide open field, it is a starting point for a plot, one that can present many alluring possibilities, although it’s not yet a plot.

What this says about you:

Premise is one of the great jewels of story brainstorming, and writers who are premise-driven are highly imaginative and innovative.

Writers who think premise first have an advantage over other writers in that they begin with compelling situations that often stimulate exciting and innovative plots, but a premise will only take a writer so far in determining a plot or story.

Many talented premise-driven writers can easily craft a story out of a premise, but some of those just starting out often have a hard time making the difficult transition between premise and story.  Premise-driven writers still have a lot of work to do before they get to plot.  They will have to move beyond the world-building phase, or the staging phase of their ideas into far more complex and concrete situations.

The risk of planning a story around a premise is that a writer may get stuck in world-building or situation (“the great war” or “the world ruled by cats”) enamored by the possibilities an interesting world can present, but unable to focus on one character’s journey that best exploits the premise and best gifts the reader a larger sense of meaning.  If you are a premise-first writer, congratulations. You are highly imaginative and able to explore places and ideas others cannot even conceive.

However, don’t get overconfident: make sure that you know how to best represent your premise through a character and a solid plot. You may have a tendency to avoid committing to any one story, or else you may often change your mind, starting something new before you’ve completed the last project. Be aware of the need to move into specifics as you allow your mind to explore.

 

Theme First:

What’s Your Story About?

For theme-driven writer, the answer will sound something like, “it’s about forgiveness,” “it’s about love conquers all,” or “it’s about how family comes first,” or “its about the evils of dictatorships/military/dogma/etc….”

How do you define theme?

Themes are the unifying, underlying, overall guiding principle of the story, the cornerstone value or moral question upon which the characters test themselves and meet their triumphs or failures.  It is important that a story develop a theme: without a theme, a story runs the risk of being only an anecdote, an interesting situation that we might tell each other to pass the time.  Theme is what makes a story valuable; it is that feeling of having gained something after having invested time and effort into reading it.  As you write your story, a theme or themes may emerge naturally, as theme tend to be the reason we think about a story to begin with.

Notwithstanding, it is important to remember that theme is not the same as plot.  Relying on theme to approach a story idea may lead the writer to be unable to progress from very generic intentions into specific ideas.  Often, it is better to think of a plot first, then to adapt the plot into a theme, as we shall see.

What this says about you:

If you are a theme-first type of writer, you have big ideas, the kind that have earned accomplished writers prizes and recognition.  Theme-first writers are writers able to change the world through their words. They are not afraid of exploring complex moral situations or illustrating current social or political dysfunctions through fiction.

Themes don’t explain what the story is about, however. What they do is emphasize what a reader may end up taking away after reading the story.  Writers who default to theme are often stimulated by an abstract idea: their first spark of inspiration comes from a generic value that they would like to explore or exalt through a story, but in confusing theme with story and plot, they may be unable to translate their intentions to a narrative.

Learn to transform each of those large, abstract concepts by transferring them to specific people in specific situations and you may very well have an important writing career ahead of you.

 

Structure First:

What’s Your Story About?

Some writers will begin to think about a story in terms of how it is organized on the page. Some example of this would be the writer who says, “I will be telling a story about a dog’s service training as told or seen from a dog’s point of view,” or the writer who says, “I’m writing a romance that will start from the end of the romance and move backwards in time, chapter by chapter.”

How do you define Structure?

Structure is the overall design of a story, the way in which the work is presented to the reader. Structure is extraordinarily important to plot, as structure is what enables the reader to understand the plot, but structure is also definitely subordinate to plot, and must be considered only after a writer has at least a somewhat solid idea of what the plot of her story will be about.

What this says about you:

Writers who being to contemplate story through structure tend to be ambitious and driven, but they also set up for themselves tremendously high stakes, often putting the cart before the horses. They are trying to determine how a story will be laid out before they know what their story will be about.  It’s a little like laying out the plans for a building before knowing if it will be a library or a residence, a workout place or a school theatre. A solid structure will need to take into consideration what aspects of a story need to be emphasized, and when things like twists, clues and character-determining scenes must be presented.  The risk of envisioning a story through its structure is that the work may end up becoming a gimmick to elevate a technique over content.

If you’re a structure-first writer, you will most likely write complex narratives of the kind that will let readers think about how you pulled it off long after they have completed reading your work, but you must learn to first prioritize plot and content in order to best serve your talents.

 

Action First:

What’s your story about?

When asked to describe what they’re working on, action-driven writers will go into great particulars similar to this: “Alhak is an orphan boy who weighs 149 lbs and is 6.2 feet tall and has blue eyes and red hair and a birthmark on his chin and is the last in a lineage of ancient warrior, but was abandoned and doesn’t know it. One day he wakes up in a prison without knowing how he got there and has to fight a big dragon which he can do because he knows a very little known type of fighting called kug-tau, a type of fighting that only X-class warriors know, but he dreams about learning kug-tau and wakes up in prison and he fights the dragon and puts out the beast’s eyes, but those eyes give the stable boy magic powers, so he breaks out of the underground cave by hypnotizing the guards with the dragons’ eyes…”

How do you define Action?

Simply stated, action is what a character does: it’s the battle scene, the love scene, the rape and pillage scene, the he-sad-she-said dialog and the slap in the face that follows. Action is easily confused with plot because every plot has to have action.  However, action in itself is only a part of the equation of elements that makes up a fully-realized plot.

What this says about you:

If theme-driven writers are able to envision the big picture, action-driven writers are the opposite: they are great with the details, able to visualize every last facial expression, item of clothing and tone of voice in a narrative.

Action-first writers have several advantages: they are often prolific and immersive, able to render eye-popping details, emotional moments, and exciting dramatic action, but when they begin to dream a story, they should be less reliant on the specifics, and try to push themselves beyond, to the big picture, to the character’s internal journey and his/her change in the end.

The risk of working on action before having an idea of plot is to be stuck on a flat line of exciting dramatic moments that, nonetheless, lead nowhere.  These types of writers may end up writing hundreds and hundreds of pages, only to realize belatedly that their story has no objective: it starts out exciting and full of energy, but it soon becomes an endless stream of drama-pact scenes that leads to no conclusion, and no resolution.

Like playing a video game, the writer has fallen in love with specific moments of action, but, though they may envision temporary twists and drama-pact moments, they are unable to make each of those actions lead to any real climax or meaning.

 

Story First:

What’s your story about?

Story-driven writers, when asked what they are working on, may say something like, “I’m writing about a kid who survives a cult,” or, “it’s about the rise to fame of the cartoonist who first invented the Simpsons.” Notice that these answers are both specific and vague: we get a definitive sense of what the subject of the writing will be, but we don’t necessarily see very clearly how it would play out.

How do you define Story?

Story is one of the trickiest literary to explain with relations to plot, and the most confusing, as it must be explained in terms of plot in order for it to be understood as different from it.  We will go into more details in the next section about how story differs from plot, and how plot hinges on but also differs from the other elements of theme, premise, structure, and action, but, for the time being, we distinguish between a story-first writer and a plot-first writer by hazarding this simple definition of plot vs. story: story is about what happens, whereas plot is the “angle” the writer takes on what happens, a slant that emphasize whichever aspect of the story the writer finds most important or fascinating.  Often the angle is often directly related to the main character, to something that the writer finds most compelling about him or her.

What this says about you:

Like “theme-first” writers, the “story-first” writers are writers who often envision the “big picture” of a narrative, imagining, for instance, the broad course of a life lived, or the evolution of a particular historical event.  This kind of writer has the instinct to start from the actual heart of what their writing will show, the experience that will dominate the narrative, although they may lack at first the specific approach that will organize the story into a flowing narrative.

Story-first writers have a very good innate sense of how narratives are born: they have a tendency to begin by doing a lot of research on the subject and may even have a general chronology of their protagonist’s life, filled with significant events and pivotal moments. Story-first writers are often organized and visionary. They are not afraid to take on large subjects.  If they run any risk by putting story-first is that they may end up having a difficult time writing focused narratives. They may have a tendency to digress, or to emphasize too many important details, to let their story run on in too many directions, or to focus too much on research and not enough on an exciting rising and falling narrative arc.

Story-first writers are very similar to Plot-First writers. They are able to envision enough detail to see the purpose and end of their story, to know what they will need to focus on.  Story-first writers have to learn to develop an angle that will enable them to let their narratives become more than just reports and elevate them into originality and freshness.  More specifically, they will need to focus on their character’s arc, also known as the character’s internal journey, as that will determine the focus or slant that the story will take.

 

Character First: 

What’s your story about?

I often begin thinking about a story by thinking about a certain type of character that intrigues me, either because I don’t understand how he or she could be that way, or because I am attracted to the kind of lifestyle choices that character is capable of making.  My story ideas will usually sound something like this: “It’s about a man who keeps on running away from the consequences of his actions, solving every problem by moving to another city,” or “It’s about a woman who lets her romantic fantasies and her loneliness obfuscate the real nature of the men she draws into her life.”

How do you define Character?

The question should not be so much how we define character as how we define it in contrast to story and plot. Starting with a character feels natural to many writers, as characters, after all, are central to all stories: they are the reason we want to read in the first place, and theirs are the actions and choices that push the story forward.  It is healthy and advisable for every writer to begin any plot quest with a close study of their protagonist, since whatever action takes place in your story will largely depend on your character’s personality, desires, and motivations. Notice, however, that the story ideas exemplified above are still quite a distance away from being plots: the story of a man who literary runs from his consequences could take shape in an innumerable ways.  He could have left behind a pregnant girl, or run away from his family when he found out his wife had cancer, or from his job when he was caught stealing, or he could be about a soldier who defected. Moreover, what happens after he runs away? Will the story continue on with the man running from one situation to another forever?

What this says about you:

Thinking in “character-first” bodes well because plot and character are so closely intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable: it is usually a character’s flaw and his or her need to address or confront that flaw that drives a plot, but character, while being plot’s major component, needs to be matched with conflict and action before there can be plot.

Character-first driven writers understand instinctually the role that a character’s psychological makeup plays on the action of a story. The advantage of a character-first writer is that they are likely to write profound narratives that ring true whether they are set in our everyday world or on Mars in 2035.

Some writers, however, become too obsessed with their characters and are unable to move past their interior explorations, creating scene after scene that highlights the characters’ personality, flaws, desires, etc. but flat-lining the narrative to reach no satisfying denouement and conclusion. The risk they run is allowing the exploration of the character’s interior spaces to overrun their stories, creating compelling character sketches rather than fully realized plots.

 

Plot First:

What is your story about?

If the answer to the question sounds something like, “A man whose fifth marriage has just fallen apart sets on a mission to reconnect with each of his past wives, intent on finding the answer to his failure in relationships,” or something like, “after the death of her child, a woman makes an unusual connection with an eccentric widow next door who teaches her about healing and hope,” – if that is how you would answer a question about your story in progress, then you are instinctively a plot-first writer.

How do you define Plot?

The 20th century novelist E.M. Forster once exemplified the difference between plot and story with the following two pithy lines:

Story: “The king died, and then the queen died.”

Plot: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”

The difference between the first and second line is that the second line gives us an “angle’ from which to approach the story, a motivation for one of the two great dramatic events that will color how the reader will experience the story.  Plot then is how the story unfolds in terms of character motivations and desires, and it explains and organizes a story in terms of causality.

Notice that each of the ideas expressed in answer to “what’s your story about?” helps the reader visualize not only a premise or situation and a character with a problem, but also a likely trajectory for how the story will unfold. It suggests a movement from problem (failure of a marriage, death of a child) to resolution (gained inner wisdom, healing through friendship). Each answer even suggests a theme and structure. It certainly does reveal some of the most basic traits of the protagonist: we are likely dealing with a self-sabotaging but charming and seductive bad boy in the first (one does not lure five would-be brides to church without possessing considerable charm), and a grief-stricken insulated woman in the next (if the eccentric widow is her best bet for healing, it’s likely the woman has sealed herself off from family and from authentic, close friendships).

What this says about you:

The beauty of a plot-first writing approach is that, if one does it right, that first simple sentence defining a story idea will do the hard work of laying out a blueprint, leaving the writer to have fun with the details and avoid that familiar terror of a blank page that so many other writers endure, even if they spend hours and hours fantasizing in details about their story.

If you’re a plot-first writer you probably don’t even need to be reading this: chances are, you’re already off finishing your umpteenth short story or novel.  You will have the easiest road ahead of you than any of those other types of writers.

If you’re not a plot-first person, however, don’t worry. You’re not alone.  Many writers struggle with plot: that’s why the market is saturated with how-to books on how to plot, with less than half as many titles concerning character and other important aspect of writing fiction.  Even the respected literary writer Virginia Wolf sometimes despaired of her inability to write forward-moving plots, though she could mine the subtleties and cruel contradictions of the human condition with ease.

 

** This blog post had an error in the plot section concerning E.M. Forster that has since been corrected. Oct. 8, 2017.

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