Plot and Storytelling

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Plot and storytelling are related, although they are not the same. Plot describes what happens in your fiction, while storytelling is how the plot is conveyed to your readers.

Your first paragraph should contain conflict.

You have several options to introduce conflict right away. You may introduce the main conflict immediately. Alternately, you may choose to hint at the overriding conflict by showing your main character’s emotional stress. Or introduce a mysterious circumstance. As long as you include conflict that fits the story and piques the reader’s curiosity, you’ll grab the reader.

Often novice writers begin a story with a banter between two characters that, while portraying their personalities, does not draw the reader in.  Although you care about your characters, your readers until they get to know them.  You must first draw your readers into the story. A suggestion of conflict will achieve that.

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. 

Your story should have a logical progression or momentum, but it 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 resolution.  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. Your unique handling of plot and storytelling will distinguish your work.

Simple plots can be as suspenseful as complex ones.

The passion behind the situation and what’s at stake for the characters will hold your readers’ attention.  Of course, certain genres require plot complexity, but even in the case of mystery novels, overburdening the work with twists and turns can be counterproductive.  Find the heart of your story and concentrate on it, with all its implications and subtleties and details. 

Fiction charged with emotion soars. And your life will help you find it.

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’ve tipped unexpectedly in a canoe, take those panicked first few moments and give them life in another fictional situation.  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. 

Your plot should consist of 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. 

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.

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. How to achieve this? Read published authors to get a sense of the balance. Listen to criticism of your work, even if it hurts your feelings. Work on your weaknesses until they become your strengths.