Plot-Driven Books

While I’ve been puzzling out the plot-intricacies of my book, I’ve been thinking a lot about plots, and plotting theory, and all kinds of plot-related things.  Which brought me to thinking about plot-heavy books… and in the midst of all my thinking, I was able to put some concepts into words that weren’t there before.

Let’s start by defining “plot-heavy” or “wholly plot-driven” as: a book with only minimal characterization and scene setting.

As I thought this, I pictured two stools:

<– One represents a balanced book, which I see as a three-legged milking stool, with the thee legs being: plot, setting, and character.

–> The other stool represents a plot-based book, which I see as a one-legged, large-based pedestal, symbolizing the book’s plot.

Therefore, because there is minimal character or setting:

A wholly plot-driven book‘s plot must be substantial, well-implemented, and unique enough to support the book on its own.

Let’s take the three parts, “substantial”, “well-implemented” and “unique” and look at each of them.


What I mean by “substantial” is that the plot premise and plot stake, must be big enough, and important enough, to carry the reader through the story.

But that definition has two new words, “premise” and “stake”.

The “premise” is the question behind the story, or the plot’s over-arcing question, and it must be perceived as important enough to the reader to keep the reader interested in turning the pages.

Even though I’m a character reader and writer, I love the James P. Hogan’s books, because I love his premises: “what would happen if our modern western society ran into a society without religion or money?” “if robots learned to reproduce what kind of society would they create?”  To me, those are big enough and interesting enough questions (handled well enough) that it was worth reading the books to see where the author went with them.

The “stake” is what’s put on the line during the course of the story.

For instance, without the assistance of setting and character, a love story’s stake isn’t big enough to support a plot-driven book, since it’s only two people’s love-life on the line.  Since romances fail all the time and people find new loves, in the grand scheme of things, a love story is a pretty small-stake story.

Whereas, thrillers, with lots of guns and dead people, or space wars, where the fate of millions of people is on the line, do much better as plot-driven books because the stakes are bigger… the fate of the community or the fate of the world.  These are big enough stakes to carry a plot-based story.


A plot-driven book must also be “well-implemented” enough to successfully pull-off an important premise and a big stake.

There’s nothing I hate more than the jacket-copy on a book that promises this huge, wonderfully complex story, and then the book doesn’t live up to the promise.

I quit reading one author (who wrote two of my favoritest books in the world) because she spent eight books leading up to this grand and glorious climax book (making major character and setting sacrifices that pretty much ruined the eight books) and the climax book fell totally flat.  I absolutely refuse to read another author who wrote the culminating book in a multi-author series of 14 books, because after all those wonderful books, hers was barely blah.  And I won’t buy another Dan Brown book because he doesn’t have the writing skills to pull off the promise of his plot.

Would Agatha Christie’s books be so popular if she didn’t do such a good job revealing the clues?  I keep buying Hogan’s books because he does such a good job actually pulling off what he says he’ll do.


BUT, being substantial and well-implemented aren’t enough to carry a plot-driven book,  the plot must also be “unique” enough to keep the reader’s interest.

With a balanced story, the author has the help of character and setting to create a unique story.  For instance, “Beauty and the Beast” has been done millions of times with many characters and many settings.  The combination of the three elements work together to make each telling of the story unique.  But the “Beauty and the Beast” plot premise is so over-done, and its stake so limited, that it’d make a lousy plot-driven story.  The reader would pick it up and say, “oh jeez, here’s another one” and put it down.

So, for a wholly plot-driven book, the plot must be unique enough that the reader picks it up, reads the jacket-copy and says “Wow! I have to read that!”.

For instance, in Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, the plot-premise was that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who escaped to France and had a kid. Even I have to admit that that plot was unique enough that I enjoyed it (too bad his implementation sucked).

And James P. Hogan’s “Minerva” books are based on “what happens if modern-day humans where to stumble upon a dead human-guy on the moon who’s been there for 50k years”.  Honestly, to me, that’s a cool premise because it shakes up every bit of history we humans think is real, that’s a pretty world-view-shattering stake.

So those are the concepts that wordified while I was ruminating plotting thoughts:

A wholly plot-driven book‘s plot must be substantial, well-implemented, and unique enough to support the book on its own.

And now, should I ever write a plot-driven book, I have the three triggers to tell me if the plot is actually enough to carry the book… not that I see myself ever writing a plot-driven book, because those pesky characters keep getting in the way and taking over my books… but it’s been a useful rumination nonetheless.