Plot and Storytelling

Plot and storytelling are two related but different elements of fiction writing. Plot is what happens in your story, from beginning to end, while storytelling is how the plot is dramatized to hold the reader’s attention. You can come up with a good plot, but unless you’re able to reveal it in a compelling manner, a reader will not stick with you.

1) Often a story intrigues readers because of the way it is told .  Think about your plot.  Can you arrive at an unusual and fitting way to tell it?  Your chosen technique should be compatible with your plot, characters, and theme, and should stand as a unique choice. 

2) Your story should have a logical progression or momentum, but does not need to be told in a linear manner.   You may skip forward or back in time as long as each section nudges the story toward its conclusion.  Beginning writers often tell their stories in the simplest, most straight-forward manner which, while competent enough, might miss out on the potential richness of the tale. Sometimes a story demands chronological storytelling, sometimes such a method is too mundane. Whichever method you choose, make sure your story has an internal logic that takes the reader through the steps of discovery, from first sentence to last. 

3) Simple plots can be as suspenseful as complex ones.  It’s the passion behind the situation and what’s at stake for the characters that will hold your readers’ attention.  Of course, certain genres require plot complexity, but even in the case of mystery novels, overburdening the work with plot can be counterproductive.  Find the heart of your story and concentrate on it, with all its implications and subtleties and details. 

4) Your first paragraph should contain conflict.  You may introduce the main conflict immediately, or show your main character’s emotional stress, or introduce a mystery – anything that both fits the story and that piques the reader’s curiosity.  Often novice writers begin a story with a banter between two characters that, while portraying their personalities, leaves nothing for the reader.  Although you care about your characters, your readers won’t at first.  You must first draw your readers into the story.

5) Fiction charged with autobiographical emotion soars.  What does this mean?  Don’t write about your life unless you’re writing non-fiction.  Write about how you feel.  For example, if you fear losing your father, write a story where a character copes with such a death.  If you tipped unexpectedly in a canoe, take those panicked first few moments and give them life in another story.  Emotions in stories don’t need to be high ones – grief, hysteria, abject fear – but should run through the words like an undertow pulling the reader deep inside.  This writerly passion, derived from your unique experience and personality, will differentiate your story from all others. 

6) Your plot should be a series of dramatic moments.  Read a few play scripts to learn how dramatic scenes work.  Novice writers often fail to fully develop the drama inherent in their stories, either cutting it off before the climax or having it occur “off stage” or unseen by the reader.  Note how each play scene depends on what happened before. Study how they are strung together to form a powerful whole. 

7) The resolution need not be tidy.  In fact, it should not be. You want to suggest that your characters will continue to exist after the story has ended, thus lending greater realism.  Much more important, and admittedly more difficult, is emotional resolution.  An emotional resolution gives the reader a sense of satisfaction while sparing him from the neat package of artificial reality.  Your main character should show signs that he has moved on from, or will triumph over, his primary emotional conflict even if he faces many future conflicts as a result.

8) Although plot is important, don’t neglect other aspects of fiction – character, setting, theme.  A short story can be overburdened with a complicated plot, leaving nothing behind to embrace.  And a novel can be thin and without consequence if not expanded with believable characters, setting, and ideas.