The Da Vinci Code – Decoding Plot-Driven vs Character-Driven Novels

Robert Langdon, literature’s most famous symbologist, is called in to solve a bizarre murder at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. The murder sets the plot in motion, driving the hero into a race to solve the puzzle before the villains. Certainly, The Da Vinci Code must be a plot-driven novel.

BUT Robert Langdon uses his specialized knowledge to advance to the next step in solving the puzzle, so The Da Vinci Code must be a character-driven novel.

Writers have been arguing the advantages and disadvantages of plot-driven versus character-driven novels since the birth of genre fiction. At a recent workshop, best-selling thriller writer, William Bernhardt, had a different take.

Plot and character must be interwoven for a story to be successful. The character is chosen for the plot. The plot is chosen for the character.

Every scene should have something happening that changes the protagonist’s life. That change, in turn, affects the next plot twist. The character is revealed by how she reacts under pressure. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation.

So don’t try to define your novel as plot-driven or character-driven. To be successful, it has to be both.

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What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us about Writing

Five facts about Charles Dickens that can teach us all about writing, in celebration of the 201st anniversary of his birthday on February 7, 2013:

1. Dickens was the second oldest of eight children. He was the father of ten children.

What Dickens can teach us: Yes, you can pursue your passion and have a family. Nobody has time to write, unless you make time to write.

2. When Charles was twelve, his father was sentenced to debtors’ prison. Charles had to go to work ten-hour days in a shoe polish factory.

What Dickens can teach us: Use your experiences in life, good or bad, not only to know what to write, but why to write. Through his storytelling, Dickens championed the struggles of the poor. Decide on a vision for your writing.

3. In the sometimes cruel conditions of the factory, Dickens experienced loneliness and despair at a young age, but he realized that these can illustrate not only the depths of human nature, but the heights of kindness and redemption.

What Dickens can teach us: It is the character of a man that makes a memorable character, and everyone, at the core, is motivated by one deep-rooted universal desire–to be loved.

4. Many of Dickens’ stories were published as serials, hooking in people monthly or weekly. Each segment ended with a cliffhanger to leave people hungry for more. It is said that people waited on the New York docks for the next ship to come in, asking “Is little Nell dead?”

What Dickens can teach us: End each scene, and each chapter with a cliffhanger to keep your reader turning pages. And, with electronic publishing’s new gateway to readers, I believe the serialization style that Dickens’ popularized will experience a Renaissance. Like Dickens, writers today can get feedback from their readers that can inspire their stories as they are created.

5. Dickens died of a stroke in 1870, at the age of 58. He wrote novels, novellas, short stories, and non-fiction. The 200th anniversary of his birthday is being celebrated around the world.

What Dickens can teach us: You can make a difference, but don’t let time rob you of the chance. And don’t necessarily limit yourself to one style of publication. Write with a vision. Write now.

How to Take Charge of Your Novel: Write it Now 4 Review and Scrivener Shout Out

I was a juggler on a tightrope balancing over a pool of crocodiles. I had way too many balls in the air–complex plot, historical references, multi-layered characters, puzzles, action scenes, spiritual themes, challenging settings, dynamic relationships. I was struggling to remember who had done what, who knew what, and did I change that yet in a previous chapter? The crocodiles were hungry to snap up anything that fell.

I could struggle through with Word. I’d written my first novel in Word, using global finds to locate my last stopping point with “start here,” or “changes needed,” or highlighting my notes to myself in red. I had a separate Word doc with character profiles, and another with chapter summaries, among others.

I knew there had to be an easier way. What I didn’t know is that writing software would change my entire approach to writing a novel.

One of my main reasons for investing $70 in Write It Now 4 was for the Story Board feature. It looks like this:

The non-colored column of boxes on the left are “parts” of my book. The columns of color-coded boxes are chapters within those parts. To use the story board format, I had to start thinking of my novel in a different way. Instead of one long manuscript, I had to separate it into major parts. This immediately helped me focus on the vital turning points in my story.  It also forced me to organize scenes into more manageable parts. I can rearrange scenes simply by dragging them into place.

Any change I make on the story board is automatically transferred to the main writing/editing sections of the program. Pull down tabs also take you to whichever chapter you need to work on next.

And those colors? I designated a color for each POV character. An overall look at the storyboard showed me who was being neglected. Speaking of characters, I can go to character tabs I’ve created to add personality traits, important dates, relationships and more. The program generates a character graph with relationships, like this:

Write It Now 4 also has global find/replace, a thesaurus, a character name generator, writing prompts, a timeline feature, and tabbed sections for settings, ideas, and notes among its features.

It’s not so much a program for writing, as a program for inspiring, organizing and expanding upon ideas.

Writing programs like this won’t work nor appeal to every writer, but I do recommend it to thriller writers and others with way too many balls in the air (hmm, maybe that is every writer).

And to those out there who use other writing software, like Scrivener, I’d love to hear from you and share your thoughts in the comments, below.

Making Mr. Right – Love Will Find a Way in Fiction

I recently and, I admit, somewhat reluctantly, attended a workshop led by Mindy Starns Clark. Her bio cast her as a romance writer, a Christian romance writer. I’m a thriller writer, so I wondered if what she had to say would be relevant. Then again, she had mentioned on another conference panel that one of her books sold 75,000 copies, and she was a former stand-up comedian. I decided to give it a try. As it turns out, her talk was both entertaining and enlightening. Here’s what I learned. As you review each one, think about how you can use these elements to enhance your novel.

Writers make Three Common Mistakes in writing the love interest:

1. Creating a perfect guy for you and not your character.

2. Using classic romance novel clichés, like the feisty redhead butts heads with but ultimately falls in love with the tough guy.

3. Using common idioms to describe relationships. “I love him with all my heart” vs. “He carved off the crust of the peanut butter sandwich before giving it to her.” Love is very specific.

So how should you define Mr. Right?

First, define the heroine’s arc, her journey, her growth and change. She may start out stifled, repressed, bored, but in the end she breaks free and is happy (think Beauty and the Beast). Defining her arc defines Mr. Right.

To build the heroine’s arc:

1. Sometimes it’s easier to start at the end of the arc, then decide on the beginning, like working backwards on a tricky maze.

2. If love is part of her journey, Mr. Right is the one who gives her what she needs when she needs it. He will get her to the end of her arc.

3. Make him  the right choice for her, then lead her to see why he is the right choice for her. Where she is weak, he is strong. Where she is strong, he is weak. Together, they complete the puzzle.

As I listened, I realized that these principles can enhance any thriller. The key to a compelling story is to bond the reader with the lead character and, as I mentioned in another post, one key element drives us all, the desire to be loved. It is a part of all that we do, and every story we read.

What Van Gogh Can Teach Us About Writing

During my recent visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a crowd gathered around one painting. We were drawn to it, as if in a dream. It was Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Most people recognize it as a famous painting, worth millions. Perhaps they know that this painting inspired the song by Don McLean that immortalized Van Gogh’s troubled but brilliant perspective on life.

But what compels us to spend time before The Starry Night?

The Starry Night is more than a painting. It tells a story that opens our eyes and minds to what may exist beyond life on Earth.

Van Gogh told his story using the medium of paint, but he teaches a valuable lesson to writers. Our stories need to reach beyond the sleepy, peaceful villages of our everyday life. We know, at our core, that something more exists out there, something wonderful, something magical, something spiritual.

We want to believe.

During his time, Van Gogh was little known, but his work endures and compels because he expressed what he believed in. He honed his craft, followed his passion and put down on paper a story that compels us to look at the starry sky of our soul and wonder.

This is what we should strive for as writers.

Five Mistakes Writers Make in the First Fifty Pages

The first reaction to this post’s headlines may be: What? Only five? No, I’ve made many more than five mistakes when writing my first fifty pages of my thriller novels. We’ve all heard not to begin a novel with description, dialog or a dream, but here are my most frustrating mistakes:

1. Endlessly rewriting the first fifty pages before soldiering on and finishing the novel. It’s almost an addiction. I can’t stop myself from rewriting. Of course, I have valid reasons, like trapping my hero at the top of a volcano, only to realize that he has no reason to be there in the first place. I try to monkey wrench in the setting. Maybe he needs to stop explosives from blowing up the volcano, or he needs to steal the remote transmitter that will signal in the villain’s strike force. I feel that it’s too good a scene to simply abandon, but it’s just not working. The good news is I think I’ve found a cure. More on that at the end of this post.

2. Making a walk-on character too intriguing. In the opening scene of my current work, my beta readers, the men anyway, all love the wisecracking, edgy pilot. I love him, too. But he is just a device to land my heroine on the mysterious island and into the middle of the action. Still, I just may bring that pilot back in the end. A character who was going to be a walk-on in my thriller, The Seventh Stone, made himself so valuable that he is now in my work in progress.

3. Writing a prologue. The debate rages on this one. But with Ebooks, I think more than ever you have to start right off with your hero in the action. When potential readers “Look Inside” your Ebook on Amazon, you have very few pages to involve them in the story. The easy solution to this “mistake:” Replace the word “Prologue,” with two words, “Chapter One,” and tie it to my cure for endlessly rewriting the opening scenes, which I reveal below.

4. I’m not entirely convinced on this one, but more and more I’m seeing that the traditional “front matter,” including the copyright page, should come at the end of your Ebook. Many readers do not want to scroll through pages before reaching Page One. Wherever you decide to place the copyright page, include a link to your website.

5. Trying to weave in too much backstory too soon, while neglecting the main focus of the story. Often, writers do a great job with a hook in the first paragraph, only to backpeddle and try to justify it with backstory in the paragraphs that follow. Keep the story moving forward. Once the reader is strapped into the rollercoaster, let it rip, and don’t stop until the end of the ride.

Now for the cure for endlessly rewriting those first fifty pages. I stumbled upon this while reading a Writer’s Digest article by Jeff Gerke, who wrote Plot Versus Character. He writes: Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that penultimate moment. (Writer’s Digest, February 2012 issue)

I now know just what to include in my opening pages and why. Every line has to tie in with this main focus of my story. If you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t feel like it’s working, ask yourself if it is focused on propelling your main character, and your reader, to that moment of truth.