Do you prefer stories where the bulk of the action, the stuff that drives the story, is external to your main characters? Or do you prefer internal engines?
Engines make a good metaphor, here.
Imagine your story is a boat. You need to get it from point A to point B, but there are options as to which way the story can go.
Your story could be an action-packed thriller where your boat is buffeted by storms, swamped with waves, attacked by sharks, all before the navigation system fails and the mast breaks.
At this point, your characters are so busy trying to deal with the repercussions of events, they don’t have time to sit and think philosophical musings on the purpose of life, or what they had for lunch, or even question which decision to take. They have to act, and act now!
These kinds of stories can range from the action-adventure style where things like breaking masts and shark attacks literally happen in the stories. Characters are held at gunpoint, flooded by hurricanes, have their homes invaded by armies.
The action can be more subtle, though. Your story doesn’t have to be what we think of as “action-packed” to be driven by events.
Your characters may be dealing with a fatal illness. A series of small events like flat tires and having the ATM machine swallow their bank card could add up to a bad day. Your character could be George Bailey, trying to get out of Bedford Falls but always dragged back by the struggling Savings and Loan.
These stories–the ones driven by events–are the kind I think of as being externally driven. Your story is the boat carrying the cast, crew, and purpose, but all they do is react to events. They may have a destination planned, they may get along or not get along, they may be calm and purposeful … but ultimately, whether they arrive or not is dependent on external forces and how they deal with them.
Or, perhaps, your characters know that the ocean breezes are determined to steer them off course, and instead set out in a high-powered, strong-engined cruiser that doesn’t need to turn aside for anything. Sharks? Ha! We laugh at the puny sharks following in our wake.
Stories like these are driven by the characters. By their interaction, their purpose. Things may happen around them, but they don’t change the characters’ direction.
Your character may steadily go to work day in, day out, timely as clockwork, but the entire action of the book comes from the vivid imagination churning away inside his head. Your story might describe what appears to be a perfectly ordinary weekend of chores and family get-togethers, but the years-long bitter struggle between the main character and her domineering mother is what the story is all about. They might sit calmly together, sipping coffee, and all the action is in their heads, and in the way they pointedly do NOT talk to each other.
Stream-of-consciousness books are excellent at this sort of thing. Heck, some of them don’t have a discernable plot at all. Plot? What plot? We’re all about emotion and character interaction. Deep feelings, and subtle glances. Our characters sit and chat about the meaning of life rather than ever getting up and going bowling.
Stories that are purely driven by internal engines often look boring on the surface–the water is one, constant flow of waves sparkling in the sun, and while the ship sails onward, it looks the same on page 427 as it did on page 3. All the action is happening down in the engine room, in the galley, under the calm, hypnotic surface.
Or, They Can Be Both
Truthfully, I think the best books are the ones that are prepared for both. They set out into the literary ocean prepared with sails, back-up engines, lots of provisions, and keep their eyes peeled for circumstances and adventure.
I get bored with books and movies that are all about physically reacting to Events. I always want to know what the characters are THINKING after they’ve diffused the bombs or saved the baby from the fire, but there’s never time. There’s always one more crisis. The heros there barely have time to say, “Thanks, partner,” after she tackles the maniac with the gun instants before he was ready to shoot. And that “Thanks, partner” is about as deep as it gets.
The books that are ALL about feelings and emotions, on the other hand, frustrate me in other ways. They’re the fictional equivalent of watching paint dry. In fact, there are stories that follow a painter through his day of stirring paint, applying primer, eating lunch between coats–all while he muses about his ex-wife’s having run off with his best friend, and wondering whether they’re going to paint their new bedroom, and if they might accidentally trip and drown in it, and at least he still has his dog waiting at home. (Yawn.)
No. Upon reflection, I like stories that do both these things.
Stories that set the characters on course with a good stock of provisions. That is, a back-story, a purpose, a set of friends and foes, and enough skills to get to wherever they’re going. And then things happen. The author throws in a phone call about a daughter’s car accident. The protagonist learns his ex is getting married, or his house catches fire. Someone plots to kill the President and only he sees the way to save him–but how can he do that and make it to his son’s wedding, too?
These are the stories that are interesting. Where events happen, and characters react, but they also ponder the repercussions of their acts. They think about how they’re going to explain themselves to their spouses, they have the awkward conversations, their knees shake after the President is safe.
Ultimately, the best stories are the ones that not only have action, but which have the emotional committment to make them meaningful. Why do you think action-adventure movies almost always have a cute child to be saved in the nick of time?