Do you like to categorize? I know I do. In fact, I’m obsessive about it. My room is clean (and everything has its own place, where it usually is), my school books are organized by subject and when I’ll use them and put neatly on a shelf, and even my computer is organized (a non-native to my computer would get lost in the nested folders). I like to label things1. So, naturally, I divide stories into different categories. And not just by genre.
One way I like to categorize stories is by how they are driven. It’s a common thing to do, actually. There are (generally speaking) two kinds of stories: plot-driven, and character-driven. An example of plot-driven would be Lord of the Rings, and an example of character-driven would be To Kill a Mockingbird (to prove that this isn’t just a genre thing, Sailing to Sarantium is a fantasy driven by characters). If you’ve read both of these (or even heard about them), then you know what I mean by plot- and character-driven stories.
Now that we’ve split stories into two groups, what about the authors? What do we call the authors of plot-driven stories, and those of character-driven stories? Many call them Wordsmiths and Storytellers.
When I picture the word ‘Wordsmith’, I immediately thing of Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Once I move past the literal interpretation of the word, then I begin to think of flowing script (such as my mother’s handwriting), medieval books with the cool embellishments, and of old paper. But what it really means when applied in the way I want to today, it means someone who writes stories that are driven by characters.
And when I picture the word “Storyteller”, I think of a roaring fire, surrounded by small children and a wizened old man. The old man begins to speak, waving his hands and emphasizing just the right moments while he spins a tale for his riveted audience. What it means in this context is someone who writes stories that are driven by plot.
But… what does that mean? How do we distinguish between the two? And, perhaps most importantly, which one is better?
First, I need a volunteer from the audience. On second thought, I need all of you to volunteer. Thank you for your willingness to volunteer of your own will. Second, think of a novel. It can be any novel, for this demonstration, by any person. Now, what comes to mind when you think of the book? Not just the title or cover, but the story. What comes alive in your head?
Do you immediately think of a colorful cast, their images created perfectly in your mind by the words on the page? Or do you think of plot twists and complications and tension and thrill?
Hopefully, you’ll think of both, but which stands out?
There you have it, a way to distinguish between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Thank you for your time, and your volunteering-ness.
Now. As a writer, think on what you write. Close your eyes and think of something you wrote. What is most important to you? The story, with its complicated flow and surprising cliffhangers? Or is it the myriad of wonderful faces and adorable small children and terrifying villains? Viola! You know what you are, now. Storyteller or Wordsmith?
Myself, I’m a Storyteller. I love to create plots and twists and cliffhangers and deep conflict that won’t ever be resolved without lots of words. (As proof, there will be a post sometime soon with a picture of the outline for one of my Epic Fantasy novels… it will also show my OCD, with all the color-coding and alignment and such.)
I realize some of you will now be saying “you can’t put a label on me! I like both characters and plot! And I do them both equally.”
Yeah, sure. But bear with me, please? Which one do you do most? There is no true 50/50 here. Pick one, for my sake, and for yours. I’m also a Wordsmith, and I love creating little nuances for my characters and watching them flourish. But I picked one, and so can you.
There’s one last question I didn’t answer. Which one is better, Storyteller or Wordsmith?
Short answer: neither, and both.
Yeah, it’s just that simple. This is a prime example of no right and no wrong. This isn’t some Boolean variable and it’s not evil vs. good. Storytelling and Wordsmithing are both valid and perfectly good ways to present a story.
Oftentimes, the amount of your natural inclination toward one or another will affect how well your story is written. For instance, I’m currently preparing to write a novel that’s character-driven (extremely so). In fact, it’s a slice-of-life, which means that plot is barely there at all. And it’s stretching me. I’m forced to set down my outline and dig deep into the part of story crafting I’ve never placed a lot of weight on. It’s one of the best things I have ever done.
So go, live your-
Oops, wrong inspirational speech2.
Find which side you lean toward, and develop it. It’s okay to admit you’re not too good at the other side (even you who claim to be balanced). But once you’ve done that, once you know what your weakness is, it’s time to buckle up for the long haul, settle down for the crazy drive, and do the hard stuff.
What about you? Are you a Wordsmith or Storyteller? What kinds of stories do you like to read most, plot- or character- driven? Leave a comment and share!
1Yes, I label people as well. Don’t judge me for it, or you’re labelling me, which makes you a hypocrite for labelling me as a labeler. Think about it.
2I don’t often prepare inspirational speeches, but when I do, I mix them up and use the wrong one. Even if the wrong one is actually a subtle quote from a Disney film.