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April 2, 2019

What Defines Our Story? Drive vs. Focus

Close up on a car's side mirror and out-of-focus background with text: Understanding Our Story: Drive vs. Focus

Ever feel like super-common writing advice doesn’t apply to your story? Or that feedback suggestions would make your story into something completely different? When that happens, we can experience self-doubt, wondering whether we’re doing this writing thing all “wrong.”

There are many reasons why not all advice will work for us or our story. Today we’re going to talk about one aspect of our story that can make the best-intentioned advice in the world a bad fit, and it has to do with plots, characters, drive, and focus.

What's the difference between our story's drive and its focus? Click To TweetLast week, we explored how to keep track of our planned changes during revisions. As I mentioned, one of the things that might affect our revision strategy is if we’re making plot-heavy or character-heavy changes—or using a strong mix of both.

The same issues with balancing plots and characters can crop up with our drafting as well. Several years ago, I heard of one way to define our story’s specific mix that might help us know when advice isn’t a good fit for our story. Let’s talk about drive versus focus when it comes to our storytelling.

What Is Drive in Storytelling?

If we’ve heard the term drive before when it comes to writing, it might have been in reference to narrative drive. Narrative drive can be a nebulous term that people all use differently, but for the purpose of this post, let’s think of it as the thread of our story that compels or pushes forward:

  • one plot event pushes the next one to happen
  • characters push actions and decisions
  • readers feel compelled to turn the page
  • the story’s pace feels pushed forward

If a story has slow pacing, that might indicate the narrative drive is weak. That is, readers might not have a good idea of how the story is moving forward. For example, we could improve our story’s narrative drive by making it clear how events are leading somewhere and not just set up as random obstacles.

One way to define our story is to determine whether it’s driven forward more by our plot or by our characters.

Plot-Driven:

Some genres tend to be plot-driven, such as thrillers, mysteries, etc. Stories with big, bad villains are often plot-driven. Protagonists can still be proactive with their actions and decisions, but the plot events drag them along.

Character-Driven:

Some genres tend to be character-driven, such as literary, women’s fiction, etc. Stories where the main antagonist is actually the protagonist—in a they’re their own worst enemy way—are often character-driven. Plot events might be completely in reaction to the protagonist’s actions without a through-line of their own.

What Is Focus in Storytelling?

On the other hand, we’re going to use the term focus to refer to which arc—plot or character—gets more attention and/or has a bigger impact in our story.

  • Plot arc is the path of change in the external situation of our story. For example: the external situation could change from “the world is about to blow up” to “the world is saved,” or from the protagonist being unemployed to employed, etc.
  • Character arc is the path of change in the internal situation of our protagonist over the course of the story. For example: the internal situation could change from our protagonist having strong false beliefs that hold them back to our protagonist living up to their potential.

In other words, our story might have both arcs, but either our plot arc or our character arc is likely to have more of the focus in the story. That arc might have a bigger impact 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.

Plot-Focused:

Some genres tend to be plot-focused, such as thrillers, mysteries, etc. These stories are often part of a series featuring the same protagonist, so the character isn’t expected to change very much from one book to another. Any focus on the character’s internal/emotional journey is minor and often triggered by a subplot (such as dealing with extended family, etc.).

Character-Focused:

Some genres tend to be character-focused, such as romances, literary, women’s fiction, etc. While it’s possible to feature the same protagonist in a character-focused series, it’s difficult to show enough change story-after-story to earn the focus. The plot in these stories is often just enough to reveal the character’s strengths and weaknesses and force them to change.

We Can Mix-and-Match Drive and Focus

We can have any combination of plot and character and drive and focus:

  • Plot-Driven & Plot-Focused: Many thriller series fall into this category. The story is more about the plot arc (focus) and the drive to stop the big-bad villain pushes the story forward.
  • Character-Driven & Character-Focused: Many literary books fall into this category. The story is more about the character’s internal journey (focus) and the drive to deal with their issues pushes the story forward.
  • Plot-Driven & Character Focused: Certain romance subgenres tend to fall into this category, such as romantic suspense or the paranormal romances I write. While the story is about the characters growing to reach their potential (focus) and falling in love along the way, there’s also a big, bad villain driving the story forward.
  • Character-Driven & Plot-Focused: Some cozy mysteries can fall into this category. While the story is about solving the mystery plot arc (focus) rather than a character arc, the character drives the story forward with decisions that might feel unrelated to random-seeming plot events (think of mysteries where the character “stumbles” into plot events that lead to the answer).

3 Ways This Understanding Can Help Us

Once we’re able to define the drive and focus of our story, how does that help us? Off the top of my head, here are three ways knowing how to label our story might help.

#1: What Advice Do We Heed or Ignore?

If we go back to our opening questions, we can see how knowing the kind of stories we write can help us recognize when advice won’t apply to our story. If we have a plot-focused story, all the tips and blog posts and feedback suggestions about character arcs won’t help us and might even make us question our writing skills.

On the other hand, if we have a character-driven story, all the advice about including a strong villain or antagonist might make us worry our story isn’t strong enough. In other words, we should ignore the advice that doesn’t apply to our style of story.

#2: How Do We Describe Our Story?

Knowing the kind of stories we write might help us approach our query or back-cover blurb. If we have a character-driven story, our book’s description might only need to dwell on the plot enough to make it clear what’s triggering the story to happen now (and why the protagonist didn’t deal with their issues last year, etc.).

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 issues in their character “tag” (cranky detective, hopeful student, etc.).

#3: How Do We Brand Ourselves or Our Writing?

Knowing the kind of stories we write might also help us develop our branding, marketing, and promotion. We might choose an author or series tagline or promotional messages that focus on our story’s strengths (“author of twisty mysteries” versus “author of heartwarming mysteries,” etc.).

How can understanding our story's mix of drive vs. focus help us? Click To TweetNo matter what, knowing what kind of story we’re writing can help us while we draft, revise, and edit. Being able to put descriptions and labels to situations can prevent us from feeling like we’re making mistakes when we follow our instincts.

Our story isn’t like every other one out there, and we’ll feel less doubt if we’re able to see how it doesn’t matter. We don’t want to accidentally attempt to cram our story into the wrong category. Our story fits its own style. *smile*

Have you ever heard of the drive vs. focus difference before? Do you understand the differences between the terms? Do you think they could be helpful for understanding our story? What types of stories do you tend to write or like to read? Can you think of other examples or insights?

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Sieran

Jami, I recall you mentioning the plot-driven, character-focused type of story. ^_^ My stories are definitely the plot-driven character-focused type. I TRIED doing a character-driven one, but it felt so unsatisfying to have no villains in my story. XD I love villains, ahahaha. Is it possible to write a character-driven story WITH an external villain/bad guy, though? Or is the villain/antagonist always the protagonist themselves? What about those contemporary romances where there are villains/antagonists in the form of abusive exes, asshole bosses, ruthlessly competitive colleagues, jealous third-parties, homophobic parents, etc.? Would these romances count as character-driven or plot-driven? I guess I’m still a bit confused about the character vs plot-driven distinction here. Also, could a plot-driven story be seen as a villain-driven story? The protagonist doesn’t cause the main events to happen, but the villain does. (E.g. The supervillain kills a ton of innocent people, which forces the superhero to take action and beat the villain before they hurt any more people.) And the villain would be a character too. Maybe I should say protagonist-driven rather than character-driven, haha. (Or we could ask whether it’s protagonist-driven or villain-driven, even if the villain is inanimate, like a devastating earthquake.) Another thing that some people don’t realize, is that even for a plot-driven, plot-focused story, the character development can still be pretty good. Recently, I read Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon (the prequel to Silence of the Lambs). I would characterize them as both plot-driven and plot-focused, but the character…  — Read More »

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Elizabeth Randolph

This is really good advice.

Paul
Paul

That was a help and interesting article, thanks.

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[…] elements that propel our story forward and keep readers turning the pages. Jami Gold looks at drive vs. focus to define our story, Roz Morris has tips to write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions, J.J. Hanna suggests […]

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