Why Story Trumps Plot

Musicians of Bremen fairytale

Why Story Trumps Plot

The great Ray Bradbury summed up the limitations of plot when he wrote, in Zen in the Art of Writing:

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.
– Ray Bradbury

Writers take heed. The issue is not “plotting verses plunging”; i.e., the tired debate over whether to plot in detail or instead to wing it (taking the advice of novelist E.L. Doctorow, who said, “Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”)

I recommend neither over-plotting or headlong plunging. Instead, focus on your story.

Or as I’ve said elsewhere: Story rules. Plot drools.

Beginning writers often believe that the plot is the thing, and so they craft intricate plots. The problem is that plots do not fully pay off until late in the story. As Bradbury noted: “Plot is observed after the fact rather than before.” (Emphasis added.)

While plot is useful, it does not have the intrinsic appeal that beginning writers think it does. Plot is sort of like a skeleton for a body. We benefit from having one, but it’s not what creates attraction, the magnetic pull that draws a reader into a book.

Story is the key.

How can you capture a reader’s attention, build their interest, and deliver at the end? Learn to tell a well-crafted story.

The magic of story is that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The story comes alive. The characters start to speak for themselves. The story creates an expansive space in the minds of the readers.

As Eudora Welty noted, great stories become swollen like a balloon; they end up holding more inside than you first thought was possible. A good example are the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. They are remarkably slim stories. Yet, like the enchanted wardrobe discovered in the first book of the series, they hold more inside than you’d think.

In the end, a novel is measured not by its extrapolation of an outline. It is measured by the richness of its story.

Stories, C.S. Lewis remarked, “must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.” If plot is just a net, what are we trying to catch? The image of a net suggests a process of winnowing: letting some small things escape, while seeking to catch something bigger.

That “something else,” said Lewis, is the “real theme.” Plot’s purpose, he suggested, is to catch the theme, like a bird in the net, if only for a few moments in the story. “The bird has escaped us. But at least it was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage.”

What in your story is meaningful to others? Can readers see their own experiences and values in it? What emotions will it trigger? As the story develops, what are you saying about the human condition?

There are three fairly simple principles to good storytelling.

  1. It begins with something eccentric. This is a core element of storyelling, that a story starts with something out of the ordinary that is worth spinning a story around. “Where’s Pa going with that axe?”
  2. It holds your interest throughout. This might seem obvious, but beginning writers often fail in this. One secret is to vary the pacing or density. Some moments or scenes are drawn out and made rich. Other moment are presented in brevity (tighter dialogue, for instance!) or are skipped over entirely.
  3. It ends with something unexpected, a surprise, but one fully consistent with the story. Often, this requires a firm grasp of your story’s theme.

What are the important connections in your story to essential emotions of love, fear, hope, triumph? Do you fear that acknowledging them would be too obvious or trite? But stories are meant to connect us, one to all. As John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote:

We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – “Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.” You’re not as alone as you thought.
– John Steinbeck

Often, a powerful story does bring its theme into the open. Consider Huck Finn’s moment of truth, late in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as Huck sits alone. His African-American companion on a long raft journey (and runaway slave) Jim has been captured. What should he do? He thinks hard about what is right. He decides the correct thing, per social norm of the day, would be to write a letter to Jim’s “owner,” Miss Watson, telling her Jim has been caught downriver and she should come to claim him as belonging to her. So he writes the letter. But then he “got to thinking”:

I’d see [Jim] standing my watch on top of his’n … so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog … and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world … ; and then I happened to look around and see that paper [the letter Huck had just written].

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

For young Huck, it all comes down to that decision. He realizes the crux of it is that Jim has become a steadfast friend, one that he cherishes more than he does the conventions of a “civilized” society that still tolerated slavery. And in those few pages, it’s out in the open: the theme of the novel. For a moment, we all get to see the bird (C.S. Lewis’s image of a theme) that “was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage.”

These are the three things that make a story work: an initial eccentric scene to pull us in, a middle that fills us with good writing that keeps us reading, and a conclusion that holds more than the sum of words on the page.

It’s the power of story.


Philip Martin is the author of How To Write Your Best Story, which looks in detail at core techniques of storytelling for writers, and several works on fantasy literature: A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy.

Related post: “The King Died and then the Queen Died from Grief: Plot or Story?”


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