By Online Instructor Steve Alcorn
(More about this instructor below)
Have you always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t quite know how to get started? Or perhaps you had an idea-—maybe even a dream—that inspired you. You sat down to write, began typing with passion, but then got stuck. Sound familiar?
If so, it’s not surprising. That’s happened to nearly all authors, especially when they’re first getting started. And, it can be very frustrating. Fortunately, there’s a great solution! The trick is to figure out the structure of your novel before you even start typing. That makes finishing so much easier. Continue reading to learn the single most important step to structuring your story. It’s a basic concept that makes it incredibly easy to create exciting, effective fiction. Best of all, it makes it much easier to finish everything you start. You need to simply understand the essential difference between plot and story.
Plot vs. Story
We tend to use the words plot and story interchangeably, but they are very different. It’s easy to think of them as the same thing. In fact, most writers, editors, and other professionals in the world of fiction don’t clearly understand the distinction. Yet the difference is very simple, and understanding it will make everything you write so much easier that you’ll be shocked.
• Plot is your protagonist’s physical journey.
• Story is your protagonist’s emotional journey.
Your novel (or short story, or play, or screenplay) will contain both. The plot will be what happens to your protagonist; the story will be how your protagonist changes or reacts inside.
By keeping these two concepts separate and carefully using them only when you mean the physical (plot) or the emotional (story), you can bring a whole new level of clarity to everything you write.
Another way to think of plot and story is in terms of action and reaction. Some action happens (plot), and your character reacts to it (story). In fact, a novel is nothing more than a repeating series of actions and reactions. Other than a little bit of setting, dialogue, and weather, there’s nothing else to it!
• The plot moves your character from his or her starting location to ending location. There may be many struggles along the way, and the physical part of those struggles is the plot.
• The story moves your character from the person he or she was at the beginning to the person he or she ends up being at the end. There may be many struggles along the way, and the emotional part of those struggles is the story.
Now that you understand this, it’s easy to see how you can use plot and story continuously throughout your novel. They work together to keep your novel on pace.Plot is action, so if things are dragging, simply add more of it. But if things are moving too fast, add more story to slow them down.
Some novels might be mostly plot. Think about Clive Cussler adventure stories, for example. And, some novels might be mostly story. Think of Jane Austen. But all novels alternate back and forth, regardless of the emphasis. A successful novel needs plenty of both.
If you understand the difference between story and plot, you will have one of the most powerful weapons in your writing arsenal. It is astonishing how many successful authors don’t grasp the difference. Sure, some of them apply them intuitively without knowing they’re doing it, but plenty more don’t, and it show in their work.
When you devise your story, think of it first in emotional terms. What are your characters feeling? What are they thinking? What are their inner struggles? Emotional impact, after all, is the only thing that really counts. But, don’t stop there. Story cannot exist without plot to carry it on its way. How will you show what your characters feel? What will express their thoughts? What will reveal their inner struggles?
As you develop the plot, remember to test every moment of physical action for its emotional value. If an event ends up having little or no emotional value, then you should find something better. For example, suppose one of the farmhands encountered Dorothy (from Wizard of Oz) as she was running away from home. He could try to stop her, or perhaps he could become a co-conspirator, promising not to tell Auntie Em. Either way, what would this contribute to the emotional story? It doesn’t illuminate Dorothy’s character in any way. And although we might learn something about the farmhand, he doesn’t appear again until the last minute of the film. This plot development contributes nothing emotionally. Let’s cut it.
As you can see, the plot you devise depends upon the story you want to tell, and the story you want to tell determines your plot options. It may surprise you to discover that plot comes second. What I mean is that it’s much easier to construct a solid story and then add plot details that make sense than it is to construct a series of events and then try to find rational reasons why people would behave that way. After all, some action we could dream up might have no logical explanation at all, and then we’d be stuck!
Now That You Know the Secret, What’s the Next Step?
The difference between plot and story is essential knowledge for successful writing. Once you understand this, it’s time to create your main character and send him or her on both a physical and an emotional journey.
Perhaps you’ve heard of three act structure? It was devised thousands of years ago, for Greek drama, and it’s used in almost every successful novel and movie, even today.
But there’s an even easier way to break your story into bite-size manageable pieces. I call it my “checkpoints of story structure.” Using these checkpoints, it’s easy to stay on track, and balance your protagonist’s physical and emotional journey by alternating between plot and story.
In my class, Write Fiction Like a Pro, I show you these techniques and many more. And we’ll return often to the concept that plot is physical, story is emotional. It’s the most essential thing you need to know about writing fiction.
If you’ve already started your novel, Write Fiction Like a Pro will show you techniques you can apply to your existing material that will, frankly, amaze you. But if you haven’t yet started a novel, congratulations! You’re in the ideal position, because you can start with a clean slate and put together a perfect plan. That will save you an incredible amount of time—and several major revisions.
Write Fiction Like a Pro provides everything you need to achieve your goal: getting into print. I’ll see you there!
About this Instructor
Steve Alcorn is the published author of a wide range of fiction and nonfiction works. During the past decade he has helped more than 30,000 students turn their story ideas into reality, and many of his students have published novels they developed in his classes. His novels include the mystery A Matter of Justice, the historical novel Everything in Its Path, and the picture storybook Molly Builds a Theme Park. He is the author of the non-fiction books How to Fix Your Novel, Theme Park Design, and Write Your Life Story. When he isn’t writing and teaching, Steve is the CEO of Alcorn McBride Inc., a leading theme park design company.