I kinda hinted at this during some of my random blabber last week and I’ve been wanting to blog about this for quite some time. Let’s just hope I can effectively convey my thoughts on the matter as it relates to writing fiction.
Plot vs Story
What’s the difference? Well, it is subtle (sometimes) and there is a fine line. Lemme start with a few examples:
[Story] Sometimes things go smoothly for our hero – things don’t need to constantly worsen to build drama. Life has ebbs and flows, high points and low points. Not everything needs to be a “dun dun dunnnnn” moment.
[Plot] Everything the heroes do as they are chased by an evil cult puts them in worse shape than they were before! Oh no, how will they get out of this one? Dun dun dunnnnn!
[Story] Our hero is defeated by the villain early on in the story. Later, the hero overcomes his shortcomings from before and defeats the villain thanks to the lessons learned from their first encounter.
[Plot] Our hero squares-off against the villain and pulls a freeze ray from his belt. Oh no – the villain is immune to freeze rays! Dun dun dunnnnn! After a scuffle, the hero notices a rope & pulley system at the last second. He shoots it and a sack of bricks falls on the villain. Good thing there was a sack of bricks lying around. We needed to see the villain defeated so we can get along to the revelation that it wasn’t the real villain! Dun dun dunnnnnn!
[Story] A situation is resolved by a character thinking things through, according to their strengths and weaknesses.
[Plot] A situation or event works solely because one or more characters is suddenly hit by the idiot stick. One reasonable intelligent question would stop the whole thing, but we can’t have that. ie: The supporting cast mistakes a robot clone for their friend, even though the robot acts nothing like their friend. Ah well, hilarity ensues!
[Story] Your super spy character books a flight with one of his alternate identities, but he was unaware that identity was compromised. Using his super spy skills, he somehow slips back into line as a disguised passenger and makes it through security.
[Plot] Your super spy character books a flight with his real identity, even though he’s running from the authorities. Um… just how hard did the idiot stick hit him?
[Story]Your character refuses to assist in a certain situation because he/she is deeply against the action. This decision makes perfect sense to the audience because of what we know about the character.
[Plot] Your character “forgets” he can time travel when he can easily fix some major problem. Hey – this new problem is supposed to introduce suspense to your book!
[Story] At the mercy of the unstoppable killer, your plucky character risks her life to find the keys to her salvation – the truck in the driveway.
[Plot] “I will defeat the unstoppable serial killer instead of taking the truck to safety because I have a vendetta!” Ummm… it’s nighttime, you’re wounded and you just broke your knife. Perhaps you should come back to fight another day, bitch-salad.
[Plot] The main character is turning 30 and he realizes he hasn’t done anything on his bucket list. He goes into work that day and learns some co-workers are arranging a skydiving trip. Hey, that was on his list! An adventure is afoot…
[Plot] Your character, who is afraid of heights, must skydive to avoid certain death.
[Plot] The “convenient death.” Hollywood loves this one – the main character has a wife and kids, but the wife has remarried because our main character was obsessed with his career or something else. Tragedy strikes and the main character meets the new husband, they all fight for survival together, and the new husband conveniently dies. Lame. (see the recent movie 2012 for a perfect example of this shitty plot device)
My advice for you: allow your story to flow naturally. Don’t outline the story (though notes on major events and characters are often useful). If you are writing to an outline, you may feel inclined to invent some plot device to move your hero from point D to point E. Don’t let yourself be constrained! Chuck the map!
Listen to your first group of reviewers. If everyone has a problem with a certain set of highly improbable coincidences, listen to them! Just because you needed to launch an important course of events doesn’t mean you must invent something unbelievable. Change it up! Don’t take the easy path as it usually ends up costing you.
Write within bounds you can handle. This stems from my Time Travel post. If you invent something then you better be prepared to keep that something consistent. If your character is a super spy, then he probably shouldn’t book a flight with his real identity – especially if he’s trying to remain hidden. If a whole series of events hinges on characters acting like morons, you might want to rethink things. Stay true to what you have built in previous chapters and you should find smooth sailing.
Story is a natural progression of events, while Plot is a rickety crutch. Try not to put too much weight on that crutch.