Why Story Trumps Plot

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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, perhaps by 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.”

So 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 the power of attraction, the magnetic pull that draws a reader into a book. And an obsession with plotting often distracts beginning writers from what really makes a novel appealing.

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.

Yes, a novel is a narrative string, a journey, a sequence of events. As Mark Twain offered as his first rule of fiction: “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” But its purpose is to engage and entertain. As a journey, it should arrive at a place that we care about, and it should share moments of delight, amazement, and insight along the way.

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? How can readers see their own experiences and values in it? What emotions will it trigger? As the story plays out, what are you saying about the human condition?

Too often, beginning writers neglect to draw attention to the important connections in their stories to essential emotions of love, fear, hope, triumph. Do they fear that acknowledging them would be too obvious or trite?

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

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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