Story and Plot: What’s the Difference?

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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!@

How to Start Your Own Writing Group: 5 Considerations to Ensure Success

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I gave up on writing groups many years ago because I was rarely part of any that felt like the right fit for me. I had no patience for poorly run groups that met irregularly, got too big and didn’t allow for ample time for feedback, didn’t have clear parameters, and allowed egos to offer suggestions free-for-all style.

But after years of writing in isolation, all the while recognizing the value in and power of giving our stories breath by sharing them with others, I reached out to a lovely friend of mine about starting a writing group of our own.

She loved the idea, so we did it. But before we officially formed the group, we met and discussed five considerations to ensure our group’s success.

Feel free to use these when forming your own writing group.

  1. Setting the group’s parameters.
    1. How large will your group be? We agreed on no more than four people to allow for ample time for feedback for each person. We also agreed the remaining two slots would be filled by invitation – one from each of us – rather than putting out a general call for members.
    2. When and how often do you want the group to meet?
      1. We formed a weekly group to create a consistent incentive for us to produce new pages on a regular basis.
      2. We decided on a two-hour meeting to allow for a full half-hour for each member’s feedback.
    3. Where will you meet? We started our group during the COVID-19 pandemic, so we’re meeting online, with the understanding that when it’s safe to be circulating again, we’ll meet in person once each month at a wine bar or some other luscious or nurturing space to add a little fun and self-care to the mix.
    4. Will your group have a name? To encourage a sense of unity, we created a group name. We’re the Storytellers Writing Group because we wanted our focus to be on fiction and memoir.
  2. Set the group’s objectives.
    1. What do you want the group to accomplish? We’ve deemed support and compassionate, constructive critique as the most important objectives for our group. To clarify what that will look like, we created a Mission Statement for the group.
    2. What values do you want the group to represent? We felt compassion and kindness were two of the most important values for our group. We believe we can support each other and provide valuable feedback while maintaining positivity and lifting each other up.
  3. Establish clarity 
    1. How will feedback be delivered? We created a Feedback Request Form for, which allows us to indicate the kind of feedback we want with each submission: meaning-focused (E.g. does it make sense?), positive feedback (E.g. what’s working well?), form-focused (E.g.. is it well-organized?, does the story lag?), and experienced-focused (E.g. how does it make you feel?), as well as how we receive the feedback (E.g. within the document submitted or on a separate comment sheet, in addition to our verbal discussing during the meeting).
    2. Will there be page limits on submissions? We agreed on a weekly submission of around 10 pages (with wiggle room to allow for both low- and high-production weeks).
    3. How and when will pages be submitted? We submit our pages by email every Monday prior to the Thursday meeting of that week.
    4. What’s the format of each meeting? We start the two hours off with a brief check-in followed by about 30 minutes for each member’s feedback.
  4. Be open to change.
    1. How often will you check in and re-evaluate? We are open to our Feedback Request Form and the overall format and functioning of the group shifting and changing as time passes, all in the interest of maintaining an integrous environment in which to support each other’s writing practices and moving ourselves and each other toward submitting our work for publication.
  5. Maintain transparency and respect.
    1. What tone do you want the group to have? Compassion, kindness, and professionalism are important to us. We hold the group sacred with the understanding that anything discussed in the group stays in the group.
    2. How will you handle missed meetings and re-scheduling? We understand that life happens and respect the fact that one of us may need to meet later than planned, may occasionally need to miss a meeting, or that the group may need to skip a week or reschedule. But the overarching intention is to maintain consistency. We want to feel we can depend on each other.

Creating a writing group is much like creating any kind of relationship. Introductions are made, intentions are stated, and trust is built over time.

Sharing our work is an act of vulnerability, one that ought not be taken lightly. Take care in creating your group. Hold it to the utmost level of integrity because it will have an impact on your practice, on your work, and ultimately, on your success.


I’d love to hear about your experiences with writing groups. Please leave a comment below about what has worked and what hasn’t. I’m always interested in improving and sharing insights.

And as always… sending you mad writing mojo.

Happy writing,

Johnnie
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How Understanding the Solar Plexus Chakra Can Improve Your Writing

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A common expectation from readers is that we show them the development of our characters. Readers want to see characters learn and change. They want to see witness the transformation.

This applies to fictional characters in novels and screenplays, and it applies to real-life characters in memoir. In the case of the non-fiction book in the self-help/how-to category, it also applies to the readers themselves – your Ideal Readers – who may consider buying your book because they want to see a change in their own lives. They want to be the one who’s transformed.

A common method for creating this expected arc is to create plot points that put characters in situations that will challenge their modes of operation, create friction, and require new decisions to surpass the obstacle and reach their desires.

When we embrace the elements of the third – the Solar Plexus – chakra, we can begin to look at our characters, our people, in a more complex way. We can use the awareness our characters gained about themselves in relation to others through the lens of the second – Sacral chakra – and begin to think about how they behave and act (or don’t) in the world.

The Solar Plexus chakra is where self-awareness comes from, which informs a character’s sense of agency in the world, their ability to take bold action to realize their dream or desire. No matter the kind of book you want to write, your people’s sense of agency is what drives everything. It’s what shapes the story and, in turn, the plot points in many storytelling scenarios.

If you’re telling a fictional or real-life story your readers want to experience the journey of becoming right alongside your protagonist. If you’re writing a self-help/how-to book, your reader wants to experience that sense of becoming firsthand by living it.

As writers of stories (in fiction and memoir) or inspiration and instruction (in self-help/how-to non-fiction), we need to be able to discern what we know about our people and what they know about themselves, and we need to be able to impart those differences to our readers.

What do your characters know about themselves, and what do you know about them? Does your protagonist or Ideal Reader have a full or depleted sense of agency? That is, does she/he take action or just let life happen? When and in what ways does your protagonist take action or recede?


Please leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you discover.