The Difference Between Narrative Style and Writing Method

The Difference Between Narrative Style and Writing Method

In the wake of Game of Thrones Season 8 there have been a number of well-reasoned discussions about the differences between plotting and pantsing. And how switching between the two mid-narrative might be a source of trouble. I highly recommend this Twitter thread by Daniel Silvermint. Also this video by Jesse Cox. Both delve into the differences between how plotters and pantsers work.

I love that these discussions have sprung to life. But disagree with the insinuation that plotters can only write plot-driven fiction and pantsers can only write character-driven fiction.

I’m a pretty solid planner. I write exclusively character-driven fiction.

The Problem May Be Style Rather than Method

Process is a big part of any creative endeavor. The way you channel your creative energy and bring your creations to life can affect everything from the final product to your mental and physical health while you’re working on a project. It’s almost impossible to discuss writing without discussing methods at some point.

But whatever method you use – be it riding by the seat of your pants to discover the story, or deep delving into the possibilities before you ever formally write a word – at some point early in the process, every writer needs to make a decision. And that decision will affect your work far more than the method you use to write it.

That question is: what is the most important thing about this story?

And that question generally has one of two answers: the plot or the characters.

What is Plot-Driven Fiction?

In plot-driven fiction, all things serve the plot. (Or the Beam, if you happen to be a fan of the Dark Tower series.) Every event in a plot-driven story builds toward a specific outcome. Whether that outcome is a turning point or the climax, the story’s characters and events exist to fulfill those pre-determined points.

Which is not to say that people who write plot-driven fiction will break their characters or worlds to make a plot happen. A good writer will never do that.

But if the most important thing is for the plot to turn out the way a writer envisions it, they’re going to shape their world and characters to fulfill that goal. Sometimes that will make character actions feel random. Sometimes it will seem like a choice just doesn’t fit.

Farscape is a good example of this. My biggest complaint about that show – especially during the early seasons – is that the characters seem to act in random and uncharacteristic ways in order to make the plots of specific episodes make sense. Case in point, there’s a pacifist who rips a dude’s arm off. She then tells him he should be grateful because he has like four other arms. Uuuh…

And this blatantly ignores that, for most of the rest of the show, this character is sweet, kind and gentle. She’s also a bit of a mind healer. So why the violence?

Another fine example is JK Rowling’s admission that she had Ron and Hermione get together because she was married to things working out the way she put them in her original outline. Even though it didn’t make sense by the time she got there.

What About Character-Driven Fiction?

In character-driven fiction, characters reign supreme. Everything that happens in character-driven fiction is shaped by a character’s motivations and decisions. And this does sometimes mean throwing out an entire plot outline because your characters decided that’s not what really happened. Domerin alone has done this to me twice.

By now, it should be obvious how this relates to the most recent season of Game of Thrones. Looking at the early seasons, it’s easy to see how much of the plot is driven by characters’ decisions. Heck, Ned makes some decisions prior to the opening of the show which end up affecting events 8 seasons later.

Watching Ned Stark navigate the show’s first season is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. There are several obvious places where simply making a better decision would have changed everything. But because it’s well established that Ned places honor above all else, you’re not surprised when he consistently makes the wrong choice.

And this trait is echoed in later seasons by Rob and John. Fitting since it’s made clear in the early episodes that Ned taught them to be honorable men.

It’s easy to see how character-driven fiction can feel more organic, but possibly also more predictable. The challenge is laying a trail of breadcrumbs that justify a character’s actions without giving the game away too soon.

It’s also clear how a switch between one and the other can feel jarring. If you’ve been following a character through the twists and turns of their life and suddenly they start serving the plot instead of doing their thing, people notice.

Narrative Style Doesn’t Lock You Into a Writing Method

I’m not writing this post to argue merits for or against Game of Thrones‘ final season. Frankly, it would take a lot more space than I have here.

But I would like to illustrate that planning your fiction ahead of time doesn’t lock you into a plot-driven narrative. Just as discovering things as you go doesn’t lock you into one that’s character-driven. Especially since most writers aren’t just plotters or pantsers. They tend to use some combination of both methods.

People often describe plotters as architects and pantsers as gardeners. But in truth, an author might enter a story space, build a framework of foundation, plant several seeds in it and then walk away for awhile. When they come back, they’ll look at how those seeds have grown in relation to their framework.

If they’re writing a plot-driven piece, they may try to adjust the plant growth so it better fits the framework they set down. If they’re writing a character-driven piece, they might dismantle parts of the framework and rebuild them so they better fit the direction the plants have grown.

Both choices are valid, but neither is dependent upon whether you plot or pants.

Plenty of pantsers create a series of plot points, and then write by the seat of their pants to fill in what happens in between. That’s plot-driven fiction. Plenty of plotters allow their stories to take unexpected turns and adjust their outlines between drafts. That’s character-driven fiction.

You aren’t locked into one style or the other because of your writing method. And a good writer should be able to smooth out the kinks, no matter which method they use to do it.

One Reply to “The Difference Between Narrative Style and Writing Method”

  1. “Plenty of pantsers create a series of plot points, and then write by the seat of their pants to fill in what happens in between.”

    That’s the planning writing style. You have an idea where you want to take the story, and make up how you get there as you go.

    The pantsing style, by definition, excludes writing towards any preconceived end.

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