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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The Surprising Secret of Thrillers Readers Love

 

As thriller authors and fans, we scour the virtual shelves for stories that weave in several key elements, but which is the one that keeps you turning pages? Is it…

High Stakes  Often, the future of the world is held in the balance, whether it’s an evil conspiracy to control financial markets, a bio-weapon unleashed in the water supply, or a powerful artifact that will alter the destiny of humankind. I wove all three into my first thriller, The Seventh Stone.

Seemingly Impossible Odds  As in some of my favorites: Indiana Jones and his professor dad against the Nazi juggernaut; Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast against his clever but deranged brother; a teenage girl who must fight to the death to survive gladiatorial-style games in the Hunger Games.

Universal Theme  The search for truth about the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the utter determination of an innocent hobbit to right a wrong, underscoring the value of human life by risking, sometimes sacrificing, your own.

The Ticking Clock, the Moral Struggle, the Larger-than-life Characters and more are all ingredients for a successful thriller covered in the many writing books, conference workshops and how-to articles on thriller writing.

But, surprisingly, one key element barely merits a mention. It is the driving force not only of a compelling story, but what makes authors want to write that story and readers eager to turn the page. It motivates fiction and real life. It steers our choices and the story’s characters’ choices of what to eat, wear and say. It’s why we do what we do at work and in play.

The Surprising Secret of Successful Thrillers is:

The Desire to be Loved.

Romance is the most obvious use of this core element. Readers flock to the Mockingjay trilogy for the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta. Indiana Jones begins and ends the search for the Ark with Marion. And James Bond (well, need I say more?). But the desire to be loved can motivate the hero’s search for truth about faith to confirm the love of God or the villain’s need to control the world to gain his twisted father’s approval. Even when it is beneath the surface of the story, buried like the troubled past of Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, the desire to be loved is why the reader connects to the characters and keeps reading.

What books have you enjoyed where you kept turning the pages not only to see what happens, but to find out if the character fulfills this fundamental desire to be loved?

 

 

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.

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.