Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

Why Plot Isn't Everything

I tend to use the words "plot" and "story" interchangeably, especially when I'm talking about how to compose an interesting narrative, but there is a difference between them. As Wikipedia puts it: "Plot is a literary term defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, how the reader views the story, or simply by coincidence."

In other words, plot is the bare bones of a story. It's "the stuff that happens."

To the majority of readers, plot is the most important component of a story. People in the book industry evaluate the quality of a novel by the voice, character arcs, and so forth, but most readers judge it by the plot. They keep turning pages to find out what happens to the characters, not to bask in the radiant beauty of the prose.

Because readers care so much about plot, many writers fall into the trap of thinking it's the only narrative element that matters. If you spend any time in online writers' communities, you'll see this message over and over: "Readers want plot. Just write likeable protagonists and a tight plot and don't waste time fussing over anything else, because readers don't care. Plot plot plot plot plot!"

But just because readers don't consciously notice or talk about the other aspects of a narrative doesn't mean they don't absorb them. A good plot is an essential requirement for a good story, but it's not the only requirement for a good story. Point of view, setting, and so forth are like the mood music, lighting, and scenery of a movie—you might not notice them because you're focused on the dialogue and pretty actors, but they sneakily shape the entire viewing experience.

Plot, in and of itself, is boring.

Readers love books because they're exciting, romantic, terrifying, or funny. A plot, by itself, is not exciting, romantic, terrifying, or funny. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens.

Think of a beloved book with a terrific plot. Find or write a no-frills summary of it. I guarantee you that this summary will make the book sound incredibly boring.

Here's an example for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from SparkNotes.

Mr. Dursley, a well-off Englishman, notices strange happenings on his way to work one day. That night, Albus Dumbledore, the head of a wizardry academy called Hogwarts, meets Professor McGonagall, who also teaches at Hogwarts, and a giant named Hagrid outside the Dursley home. Dumbledore tells McGonagall that someone named Voldemort has killed a Mr. and Mrs. Potter and tried unsuccessfully to kill their baby son, Harry. Dumbledore leaves Harry with an explanatory note in a basket in front of the Dursley home.

Ten years later, the Dursley household is dominated by the Dursleys' son, Dudley, who torments and bullies Harry. Dudley is spoiled, while Harry is forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. At the zoo on Dudley's birthday, the glass in front of a boa constrictor exhibit disappears, frightening everyone. Harry is later punished for this incident.

Mysterious letters begin arriving for Harry. They worry Mr. Dursley, who tries to keep them from Harry, but the letters keep arriving through every crack in the house. Finally, he flees with his family to a secluded island shack on the eve of Harry's eleventh birthday. At midnight, they hear a large bang on the door and Hagrid enters. Hagrid hands Harry an admissions letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry learns that the Dursleys have tried to deny Harry's wizardry all these years.

We're barely off the starting line, and I'm already asleep. It feels like it takes longer to read the first three paragraphs of this dry synopsis than it does to read the first three chapters of the book itself. Plot plot plot plot plot my Aunt Fanny.

The stuff that plot pushers insist nobody cares about is the very stuff that makes books worth reading. What's the difference between reading Jane Eyre and reading the sentences, "A feisty Victorian governess falls for her Byronic employer, but he's married to a psychopath. The psycho sets the house on fire and Jane gets her man. The End."? The plot of a novel gives it structure and direction, but the magic is in the way it's told.

In sum, bones with no meat on them are useless. Plot is very important to readers, but artful storytelling is also very important to readers. To write a good novel, you can't skimp on either one.

Focusing too much on plot can distract you from writing well.

Recently I've read some books in which the authors seemed to prioritize plot above all else. As I was reading, I could envision these writers ticking off boxes on a mental checklist.

"Inject conflict into every scene: check. End every chapter with a cliffhanger: check. Turn the tables just when the good guys are about to win: check. Awesome, I've written a page-turner."

I suspect these writers had it drilled into their heads that they must move the plot forward in every chapter, every scene, every sentence, or readers might put the book down to eat a snack and immediately forget about the story and its author forever. The writers were so busy chanting, "Keep the story moving! Keep the story moving!" that they forgot to make the book interesting to read. They didn't develop the characters, flesh out the settings, put spirit into the prose, or do anything else that might have transformed their novels from mediocre to great.

Delivering story event after story event can make your book formulaic.

When I read books or see movies that follow all the "rules" of plotting, I start to detect patterns and detach.

If you watch enough episodes of any detective show, you'll start to (a) correctly identify the culprit as soon as all of the key players have been introduced and (b) predict exactly what will happen at any point in the show, depending on how many minutes have passed. In minute two, some random people will discover a corpse. Around minute five, after the first commercial break, the detectives will exchange witty dialogue while examining the crime scene. In minute forty-eight, the detectives will arrest someone they're certain is the killer, but he won't be, because in minute fifty-two he'll reveal some crucial information that throws everything in a different light. By minute fifty-six the real culprit will break down and confess. Then in minutes fifty-seven through sixty the detectives will deal with their humanizing personal problems and finally deliver a pithy one-liner to close the show.

The result: you don't invest yourself in the investigation, because you know the detectives will be on the wrong track until minute fifty-two. You don't care about the characters, because you know they're all created to fill specific, narrowly defined roles.

Books aren't usually that formulaic, but they can come close. Instead of getting caught up in a novel rife with cliffhangers, I'm likely to sense the approaching end of a chapter and think, "Okay, time for a shocking twist. Wonder what it will be?" Or I'll sense that things are going too well for the protagonists and think, "Where's the sudden and disastrous reversal of fortunes? Aha, there you are!"

Combining plot-driven storytelling with quality writing is difficult, but possible.

Literary tomes with elegant prose and complex characters, but no plot, are boring. Pulp novels with bombs exploding and people copulating on every page, but no personality, are equally boring.

The best novels have it all: an intriguing voice, well-rounded characters, food for thought, and enough action to keep you turning the pages. It's a tall order, but it's possible.


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Kansas"?