The most difficult writing challenge for me is and has always been plot. You’d think plot would be easy considering it’s what happens in a book. Ah, but I write character driven stories. For me the most important thing, the bread and butter of my writing, is building characters. Nothing makes me fall in love with my writing faster than creating an absorbing and complex character, throwing them in with other characters, and seeing how they interact with their world. But that doesn’t necessarily make for a story.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve read far too many books lately where something was lacking. Maybe the novels had compelling characters or a really interesting setting. Maybe the premise was good. But nope, it just didn’t hold my interest.
And then I read a short essay called “The Philosophy of Plot” by James N. Frey that set the proverbial light bulb off over my head. This essay talked about the difference between Plot and Story Line.
Guess what? They aren’t the same thing! Furthermore, you can have a story line without having a plot. In fact, some of the great works of literature are carried along on a story line rather than a plot. Ooooooo!
But what’s the difference?
Plot is a chain of events. It carries the characters in your story through a series of actions, a series of cause and effect. Event A happens and your characters have Reaction A, which leads to Event B. Event B provokes Action B which leads to Event C. One thing follows another in a logical progression. Complication ensues, stakes are raised, and the characters strive onward through the Rising Action through Acts One and Two and into Act Three of your story. There they meet the ultimate Event/Reaction combination in the Climax, which resolves in one way or another into a Denouement … or not. Voila! Plot.Story line is something else entirely. Story lines take place across a much longer period of time. They are the journey that your character is on. Story line is like a road that winds on through a series of events as the characters grow and develop. Some actions within the story might have a cause and effect relationship, but others might not. But still the story progresses and the characters have gone through changes by the time they reach the end.
To use the examples of some books I’ve liked, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a plot. The Hunger Games has a plot. Gone with the Wind has a storyline. I would argue that The Help has a storyline as well. But all of these books are very well done.
My problem is that I tend to think from character as I write. I’ve always tended to be a pantser. I’m very good at coming up with characters and putting them in situations. When it comes to setting the scene I’m awesome. But when the time comes to set things in motion and move them forward … Ah, that’s when things get rough in my worlds. I have lovely characters doing things that ultimately aren’t very important and lead nowhere.
This is a big and all too common problem that I’ve seen in a lot of writing. The writer starts off with the best of intentions, but they don’t quite commit to a story line while at the same time including too many irrelevant scenes from the life of the characters to count as plot. The end result is a muddy mess in which the characters do a lot of literary nose-picking while the reader gets bored and wanders off to grab a cup of coffee.
It might be hard to hear for a reformed pantser like me, but if you’re going to commit to a story with a plot, and I highly recommend it, then you have to put effort into making sure that your plot has teeth. It’s a lot harder to keep your characters focused on their story goal than you might think. A strong character will try to distract the writer’s attention with a thousand delicious details about their life that seem like they need to be explored. But if it’s plot you’re after you need to focus on what those characters are doing, what their goals are, and keep them moving forward.
However, if your characters are so dimensional and complex that their minor journeys are the plot, then you might have a story line situation on your hands. Or maybe a series. I’ve never tried to write literary fiction, which I think of as closer to story line-driven writing than plot-driven writing, but I have written a series or two. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows might have a plot, but the Harry Potter series as a whole has a storyline. If you plan on carrying your characters through a long period of time and an epic life journey, then you need to pay attention to the storyline.Either way, whether you’re focused on creating a plot or whether you’re out for something closer to an epic storyline, it’s essential that you keep it clear and crisp. Sometimes that means cutting out giant chunks that you originally thought were going to win you the Booker Prize. I just did that with a huge swath of my forthcoming novel The Courageous Heart. It’s not always easy to see what the meat of your plot or your storyline is on the first pass. And that’s why greatness as an author comes not through writing but through revising.
But that’s a blog post for another day.
So what are some good examples of strongly plot-based stories or strongly storyline based stories that you’ve run across? What do you enjoy reading or writing more?