Melanie Lynne Hauser is Right on!

Melanie Lynne Hauser in the comments column:

Well, Miss Snark might have a better or different view (regarding character driven novels) but...in my experience, I had two previously agented, submitted novels that made it to the marketing committee level but didn't sell. And both were labeled somewhat "quiet" novels - the books were about relationships, women who grow into their own - i.e., in my own view, "character-driven" in that events didn't really drive the narrative; the characters' growth and development and reflections did. In retrospect, I'm forced to admit that there was very little plot, to speak of. And I have no better proof of this in the fact that really, I'd be hard pressed to write a compelling hook for either, beyond "Well, these two girls are friends and then they grow up and their friendship changes and then some stuff happens, but they remain friends in the end."

Um, not very compelling.

It wasn't until I wrote Confessions of Super Mom that I really understood that there have to be external events driving the narrative, events that FORCE the character to change (or not; that can be compelling, too). And these events have to be carefully constructed to have a beginning, middle, end, as well as high stakes involved - in other words, you know: A Plot. And once I did this, I was able to finally come up with the hook, the short description of the book I mentioned above. (And also - I was finally able to sell a darned book.) Characterization is still important, of course, and that's where I always start. But there has to be a reason for the reader to keep turning those pages, wanting to know what happens next, and I think - at least in my case - it's much easier to do that when you have A Plot.

That says it pretty darn well.


MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Oooh! How exciting to come over to Miss Snark and see Melanie's comments here! Because I KNOW Melanie. Because the first time we met (for coffee, not a pail of gin, unfortunately), she and I were both wearing the same last-year Gap shirt! We were bonded (at least I thought so!)

I feel famous by association!

And just as an FYI, that book that Melanie wrote but didn't sell is called Humble Pie!

Go Super Mom who is also Super Plotter!!

Anonymous said...

I'm always disappointed when the human life cycle subtitutes for plot.

Martha O'Connor said...

Melanie Hauser rocks!!!

Mindy Tarquini said...

Melanie and I are friended on MySpace.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Melanie was in the "On Golden Pond" group, but joined the "Jurassic Park" bunch... hmmmmm!

There's lots of $$$ separating folks from themselves and reality. (That's why there's more people at the county fair's geek show than the crochet pot holders booth.)

We all know life is tough - then you die!

Haste yee back ;-)

Bernita said...

Thank you.
I may have worried for nothing.

Existential Man said...

Mel is one smart cookie--one of the clearest thinking writers never to get a college degree I know. She can run circles around many with graduate writing degrees.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, cool. I go out for some Christmas shopping, and come back to find I'm a blog post on Miss Snark! I feel so special!

(Although I don't get the "On Golden Pond"/"Jurassic Park" reference.)

Ray said...

On Golden Pond = tension

Jurassic Park = action

Where was the Loc Ness Monster in the golden pond?

Why didn't the lawyer get spanked by the T-rex?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Mel. Timeless literature is almost always character driven, but it has to be done well. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, Alfred Chester, Vladimir Nabokov, Rilke etc., I would prefer to read Ulysses or New Yorker fiction than a series of formulaic events. It's a waste of time to know how a novel will be before I've read it (character has a want, want is stifled, in the end the character is somehow better or has an epiphany). It's very difficult to write good character driven fiction. It's quite simple to write a plot.

Jackie said...

Timeless literature is almost always character driven, but it has to be done well.

It seems to me there are plenty of classic plot-driven works out there, like The Odessey, Morte D'Arthur, Brave New World, 1984... And there are many classic works that are more character-oriented (say, A Tale of Two Cities, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies...). I wouldn't say that timeless literature is "almost always character-driven."

It's a waste of time to know how a novel will be before I've read it (character has a want, want is stifled, in the end the character is somehow better or has an epiphany).

Wait -- are you describing action here, or character growth? Because it seems to me that in a character-driven novel, the characters have to encounter some obstacles before they can actually grow, and in the end the character is "somehow better or has an epiphany."

It's very difficult to write good character driven fiction. It's quite simple to write a plot.

You've just dismissed all genre fiction. (Who knew that writing a thriller was so damn easy? Or mysteries? Or romantic suspense?) Play fair: Admit that it's quite simple to write poorly, and that it's very difficult to write an exciting, salable book--whether it is character-driven or action-oriented.

I think that it's both elements that are needed in today's market: likable (or at least interesting) characters who grow AND an engrossing plot (read: action). Sure, there are exceptions. And not all books that succeed in today's marketplace will become timeless classics. But some will.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I've read some godawful "character-driven" literature. Which didn't have a hint of plot. Like Saul Bellow's book (the title of which I have mercifully forgotten) where the character took 69 pages to cross the room at a library. Snooze.

Jude Hardin said...

Plot doesn't happen in a vacuum (unless your characters happen to be dust mites). :)

Plot happens when opposing forces (onstage and off) clash. No conflict (internal, external, paranormal, etc)=no story.

If your readers don't care about the characters, they probably won't care about the plot. A coincidence might get the ball rolling, but most good books are really character-driven, whether they be genre or "literary."

Anon's comment that plots are easy to write is absurd. You can write a three hundred page character sketch (or a much longer one, like Ulysses), but if the characters don't cause something significant to happen, then how many people will give a damn?

Unknown said...

Hmmmmmmm, I frequently find myself annoyed with the so-called "plots" of many novels, esp. when the plot substitutes for characterization and character growth. I’m not saying that ALL plot-driven books are like this, but, IMO, far too many are. Give me a good, character-driven novel any day!

Katie Alender said...

I was always taught that nobody wants to hear the story about the day nothing happened.

Conflict can be internal if it's compelling enough. But you have a much larger target to aim for if you go for external.

And maybe it's simple to write a plot (but maybe it's not), but it's not simple to write a compelling plot acted out by interesting, three-dimensional characters.

Anonymous said...

Note I never said to forgo exquisite characterization - I even said that's how I start. You can't sacrifice one for the other, but neither can you have one without the other, and I think that's a mistake a lot of new authors make. At least, it's a mistake I made. And when you're trying to break into publishing, I do think that plot matters a bit more than characterization; it's how the publisher is going to sell the book. And it's also more important when writing the hook, the discussion of which is what started all this commotion anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy to see someone reaching the same sane conclusion i have.
The last decade's seen a character hype resulting in good stories being replaced by introvert awfulness on the shelves -- at least in the genre I prefer to read.

As a paying customer I'm not happy.