A lot of first-time writers either don’t understand what a plot is, struggle with how to create one, or simply (and tragically) believe their novel doesn’t need one, either because they’re story is so avant-garde or superior to other writers’ works or because they think an idea is a plot (hint: it’s not). So, I’ll define plot in simple terms, provide an example of a plot, and share why plot is so important to the enjoyment of a novel by your readers.
Plot, to put it succinctly, is about causality. It’s this happened, and so this happened, and because that happened this happened, etc. Plot, according to Ansell Dibell, in Plot: How to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off in scraps of frustrated revision—and how to rescue stories that do, says “Plot is the thing characters do, feel, think, or say, that make a difference to what comes afterward” (The italics are mine). And this, according to E.M. Forster: plot is “the king died and then the queen died of grief.” If you just said, “The king died,” that’s not a plot—it’s an event. Make sense?
“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”
So, why is plot important? Well, people read for many reasons. They read to be entertained, to learn something new, to maintain their cognitive abilities as they age, and so on. When they read fiction, however, it’s most likely they’re reading to be entertained. And what entertains people when they’re reading fiction? The need to know what happens next. If there is no string, no connection, between what happens from page to page, chapter to chapter, you have a narrative that is episodic, which means this happened and this happened and this happened, but there is no relation between the events (see the rules of writing). There is no causality. And without causality, the reader asks herself this: Why should I care? The answer is that she shouldn’t.
It’s a simple concept once you understand it. In real life (IRL, for you digital world folks), things don’t have to make sense. You can have a car accident in the morning, eat a chocolate cupcake for lunch, skip around your office to get exercise, go home and watch TV, go to sleep, and then do something else the next day. None of these things need be connected in any way, other than the fact that it was you who did all these things. Fiction needs to make sense. In fiction, things need to happen because other things happen, otherwise the reader gets bored, puts down your novel or short story, and you get that one-star rating by a critic on Amazon or Goodreads. Now, as a writer, I’m not suggesting you’ll have a solid plot in your first draft; I’m just saying you’ll need one by the time you get your novel published (or publish it yourself). Trust me on this—a story without a plot isn’t much of a story, nor will it ever be one. (Before you blow a gasket, keep reading).
John Dufresne, in The Lie That Tells the Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, says, “An idea is not a story. A first draft is not a story. A moral is not a story. A character is not a story. A theme is not a story. A plot—now that’s a story!” Terese Svoboda, on the website Centerforfiction.org, says, “Readers hang on every word in poetry—and every word omitted. What readers hang on in fiction is just as complicated but perhaps the unrevealed tantalizes the fiction reader the most. The unrevealed is plot. That is to say, plot is basically withholding information in order to string the reader along to find out more. It can be as simple as not revealing whodunit or what’s in the box in the last chapter.” Plot makes us want to know what’s next. Because we want to know what’s next, we keep reading.
Now, I know there’s plenty of you reading this right now thinking, I know plenty of writers that dismiss plot. And it’s true. In August, 2019, David W. Berner, on Medium.com, wrote an article called “Plot is Overrated: Why writers should focus on more important elements.” On Bookriot.com, Clay Andres wrote a piece called, “In Praise of Plotless Books,” and listed out a few novels, including On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, and others. On the Road holds a special place in my heart, and Tristram Shandy is a book taught widely in graduate school (I had to read it when I got my MA in Literature in English). But do these books have plots? That’s a tough one to answer, and I’m sure scholars can debate this for eternity. It’s a tough question for me to answer as well. So, I won’t try. I just appreciate the novels for what they are (or aren’t).
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
As a student of writing, you’ve probably heard, “Is your story plot-driven or character-driven?” It’s kind of a trick question. My view is that novels are both, though the emphasis of the writer may be on one over the other. Character-driven novels focus on the thoughts, the feelings, the decisions and actions of their protagonists. My novel, The Losses, is a character-driven novel. I dive deep into the lives of a number of characters and show how the actions of other characters affect (either positively or negatively) the lives of my characters. I provide a thorough view of how my characters feel, meaning how certain things hurt them, why they get hurt, how they deal with the pain, the repercussions of that pain, and so on. But I also have a plot—it’s just not the central focus of the book.
Plot-driven novels focus on the what of what’s happening. They focus on the action—the boy goes missing, the detective finds a clue, he chases down the clue, which leads to a name, the name leads to another name, the cops are called, they break into the house, inside, in a basement, are five kids that have all gone missing, the criminal is caught, and so on. This leads to this which leads to this, which leads to that, etc. Remember, plot is about causality. The king died and then the queen died of grief.” The king doesn’t just die.
One final point about plot that I’d like to let you in on, because I see this topic come up all of the time on social media writing groups, and always posted by disappointed beginning writers: There are NO new plots. Every plot has been done already. That doesn’t mean that you should throw in the towel. At all. Every writer out there can use the same plot and never tell the same story. Every writer’s work is like a snowflake: it’s different from the next writer’s work. We all tell our own stories in our own ways, and that’s what makes our stories special, not that we’ve somehow come up with an original plot.
Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres was based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, is based on Hamlet. Seth Graham-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a combo of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and zombie fiction. Remember, good writers borrow, and great writer’s steal.
So, how many plots are there? Well, it ain’t unlimited. Wikipedia (and many academics) say there are 7 basic plots. Others believe there are 36. Some say 6. Whatever the case may be (my personal opinion is that the number is arrived upon based on how a plot is defined by these sources. Some of the plots out there available to you are the quest plot, the comedy, the rags to riches, overcoming the monster, the rebirth plot, and so on. And remember, don’t be afraid to steal a plot—it’s been done innumerable times, and will be done over and over again. All you have to do is put your own spin on it, and you’ll be fine. Give it a go. Steal that plot and see where it leads you. Good luck.
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