Story and Plot: What’s the Difference?

Image by TweSwe from Pixabay 

You’ve likely read or heard me go on and on about how your people (your characters and/or your Ideal Reader) come first when preparing to write a book. As I’ve posited many times over, once we know our people DEEPLY, the plot starts to reveal itself.

But what about story? How does it figure into the process of getting our people from the beginning to end of their adventures? And what is story, anyway?

Kurt Vonnegut clarified traditional, recurring story forms to help us comprehend the concept of story by visualizing them in shapes.

Here’s how I think of it.

First, plot is the container within which your characters and their stories live and breathe. I think of it as the body that holds all the parts—the locations your people occupy, the scenes they live out, and the exposition that reflects their experiences in their adventures, conversations, and conflicts.

Story, on the other hand, is the heart of it all. Story pumps the blood within and throughout and gives life to your people’s thrills and tribulations—the plot. Or, the path your people will follow throughout the story.

Story is what makes your readers care and keep turning the page.

This likely sounds vague and intangible. And it is, in a way. It’s what we, as writers, feel within us when we conceive of a protagonist and care enough to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Likewise, it’s what makes our readers stay engaged throughout and, in the end, feel they’ve had an experience that goes beyond simply reading words on a page.

So how do we create story?

Just like a body is made up of many parts, so is story. And just as with all the many parts of the body that keep it running smoothly, we can think of the many parts of story in the same way.

Without understanding these important and essential features, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to begin and keep moving forward.

To help you begin to create a path for your people and get to know them, here are three essential aspects to a solid foundation for your novel or memoir.

Opening scene
This scene puts your reader right in the story world by showing her who your protagonist is, what her status quo life looks like (before the inciting incident), and what she might need or want to change. That thing she desires.

Inciting incident
This scene happens in a ways (I always tell my clients to use three chapters or 45 pages as a guide… this can always change as the writing and story evolve). It’s the event or situation that happens and is out of the protagonist’s control. It’s what sets her off on a new trajectory that serves as a path for the story’s unfolding.

Sensorial experiences
Using vivid descriptions—including setting and place—that create a lucid, true-to-life sensorial experience for your reader is essential. When you help her see, smell, taste, touch, and hear, as well as sense, the details of your story world, you infuse her real-life world with wonder, which makes her want to keep invest in your protagonist and your book.

So, what then, after these elements of the story have been determined and written?

We keep checking back in on what we discovered about our protagonist’s deepest desire, wound, and fear. And we write scenes that build on and connect with each other, that suture the protagonist into the reader’s heart, that offer a means to understand this particular human’s—your protagonist’s— inner world.

We keep asking the all-important question: “Why?”

And if we keep writing, we find the answers.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!@

Plotting and Pinching for NaNoWriMo

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Are you a plotter or a pantser? I’m the latter. Without a doubt. In fact, I vehemently resist plotting. My intuition guides me through my story. I know who my characters are, I know what they want, and I know where they will be at the end.

I’m happy to sit down and pour out the connecting scenes that bubble up from my unconscious and get them on the page. I don’t suffer from writer’s block.

BUT… and this is a big one… there’s a lot to be said for creating a timeline/outline that serves as a road map for the creation of a novel. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a bunch of scenes only to realize you’ve left the protagonist’s deepest desire in the dust or the connections aren’t being made or the pacing is out of whack or…

This week, in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been working on my in-progress novel, Miranda’s Garden, which is about one-third of the way “finished.” I’ve created a time/outline in various forms.

  • A long-form textual portrait-oriented document that breaks down my acts and everything I’ve completed so far so I can fill in what’s to come – So. Much. Detail.
  • A more abridged version of that long-form document wherein I distill the key plot points and pinch points of the story, with each one highlighted for easy identification, and also includes the percentage of the story that should be told at each juncture, along with anticipated page numbers, based on a 250-word novel and a 300-word novel.
  • Index cards on the floor that condense and distill even more.
  • A highly distilled landscape-oriented version of the above. (See image below.)

If you want to get the most out of NaNoWriMo, I highly recommend creating one of these, even if you’re a pantser like me. Even if you highly resist doing so—like a cat being put into a tub of water—like me.

Creating this timeline/outline for yourself won’t rob you of your pantsing opportunities. There will be plenty of room for that within the framework you create. And I have to admit, seeing it all boiled down in front of me makes it all feel a whole lot more doable.

Best of luck to you in your novel writing adventures in November. I’d love to hear how the diagram helps and what your experience was like when December 1 rolls around.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Johnnie
XO