Last year, I attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival and listened to English author and creative writing lecturer, Scarlett Thomas, speak. This prompted me to purchase her book, Monkeys with Typewriters: How to write fiction and unlock the secret power of stories.
This book goes a little deeper than the average creative writing text. It considers greats like Aristotle and Plato, comparing their theories with modern day literature and movies, and revealing commonalities in storytelling that have lasted the ages.
Show, don’t tell
Chances are if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been told show, don’t tell. This statement urges against including too much backstory or penning copious amounts of detail. Instead, it suggests writers must aim to show through action.
An active story is a story that keeps us turning the pages. Stories heavy on the description can lose this sense of immediacy, which is a problem because as authors we are eager for readers to want to turn the pages.
Characters vs plot and what’s it got to do with Aristotle?
So why the comparison between plot and characters, and what has that got to do with Aristotle?
As Scarlett reveals in her book: “Aristotle argues that everything in a narrative, from changes of fortune to characterisation, must be demonstrated through action as far as possible. He says, therefore, that plot is the most important part of telling stories, not character.” Monkeys with Typewriters, p.51.
Scarlett continues to support this theory stating: “We learn about a character best by hearing about the actions of that character.” And, “it’s through plots that we experience characters, not the other way around.” Monkeys with Typewriters, p.51.
It’s all about action and seeing the story unfold
In practical terms you need to let your readers see how your characters behave.
Say you have a character who is a high-achieving control freak, with a tendency for drama. By putting her in a situation that illustrates these qualities through her behaviour (actions), you create a far more believable and interesting story. For example, perhaps she is hosting a Christmas party and has spent weeks preparing for it. Then, on the day of the party, something unforeseen happens–like her dog eats all the hors d’oeuvres right before everyone is due to arrive. Our character goes into melt down and throws a tantrum of majestic proportions. It is through the character’s actions that readers can see her defining qualities.
So next time someone mentions ‘show, don’t tell’ in relation to writing, you can nod your head knowingly. If you want to show off, you can tell them that the concept is not new and first originated from the Greek philospher, Aristotle, over a thousand years ago!
Do you agree that plot is more important than characters? Do you find it hard to show, rather than tell?
9 Replies to “Why is plot more important than characters?”
I’ve gotten in the habit of saying my books are character-driven rather than plot-driven, that the characters come first for me etc. etc. Your post has made me rethink those statements a bit. The characters do come first for me as the writer but once I really get to know them and the book comes together it is the action (translation – plot) that reveals these characters to the reader. Great post.
Thanks for reading. I’m a bit like you too. I love to focus on my characters and this information was a reminder about the importance of plot, as well as keeping the story active.
The more experience I get as a writer, the easier I find it to show instead of tell. The real problem is usually trying to come up with the exact right action to convey exactly what you want to.
As to Character vs. Plot, I found the argument you related to be essentially a restatement of show, don’t tell. I don’t think what you wrote touches on whether a story is better off plot-driven instead of character-driven. That question seem to be purely a matter of taste. I prefer character-driven. Others prefer plot-driven.
I definitely would not recommend anyone changing their style of writing based on the advice you heard that that conference.
Thanks for reading. Yes, you’re right, this blog post is very much about show, don’t tell. I wouldn’t suggest anyone change their writing style based on the advice. I found it interesting to share because as someone who tends to focus on my characters, this advice gave me a fresh perspective, reminding me that it is the plot that helps grow the characters and moves them forward. Conversely, if your focus is on the plot side of things, it’s a good reminder that your characters need to work together with the plot.
Good luck with the show, don’t tell! It’s certainly hard to achieve all the time, but you’re right, the more you write, the easier it gets.
I’ve read books that had a fun group of characters with a weak plot and still enjoyed it because of the characters. I’ve also read the other kind with a twisted well-developed plot but uninteresting characters. I’ll take great characters over plot most of the time. My first novel was designed as a quick read with likable characters. I like Belinda’s comment that the characters have to work with the plot. Isn’t that what writing a book is truly about?
My editor likes Dr. Bishop, a secondary character, in my second novel and would like him to have a story of his own. I hadn’t planned on that, but it’s something to think about. Does he overshadow the primary characters? I don’t think so.
Hi there. Thanks for reading and commenting. The relationship between plot and character is complex isn’t it? Characters have to work with plot and vice versa. All the best with your writing.
I wasn’t always, but I am now as comfortable with showing as telling. Most of the time, if I’m telling I’m looking at the pace and looking for ways to affect it. Slow it down, more showing. Speed it up, I use more expose. Typically, I open with character but after that magical first act, I want a strong and dynamic plot to take the reins. Too much character and I feel the story becomes gossipy and must rely on “twists” and description/world-building to keep the reader’s interest burning. I can do a lot with/to my characters through plot, but I can’t do much to the plot with just the characters. True, too, the kind of story I’m telling(oops! showing . . .) matters, as well.
Thanks for reading and commenting Daniel. You make a great point about the pacing!