Plot Your Story

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This is the first of four posts I am sharing in the lead up to National Novel Writing Month (aka “NaNoWriMo”). Each Tuesday, I will have another few thoughts to share on how to get the most useful story out of your mad dash toward the pinnacle of 50,000 words. These posts will share tips and offer recommendations from my many years as a developmental editor and writing instructor to shape your ideas into something that doesn’t take the six months to a year next year to shape into something publishable. it is my hope that this “planning” is also useful to pantsers – giving your subconscious food for thought before you dive in.

I’m doing this in October, referenced by many in the NaNoWriMo community as “Preptober,” because that’s what these posts will do: prepare you to write throughout November with purpose and yet too, experience the freedom to discover a twist here, a turn there, while you are writing.

Whether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, contemporary or historical fiction, storytelling is about life. Consider this: What is life but what happened when you had made other plans?

Today’s focus: The Big Pictures of Plot and Story

Janet Friedman rightly points out that a story and a plot are two different things. Plot, she states, is a record of the external things that happen to your character. Story, on the other hand, should trace the path of the internal things that happen.

Plot is shaped by the character’s goal(s) (both short and long term) and every time they run into conflicts trying to achieve those goal(s). Plot is also the things that happen that the character must react to or is affected by, that alter or delay their goal(s). The character’s reactions are governed by their motivation (their “why”) for achieving their goal(s).

Story is the effects these events have on the character. When they have to think and strategize a way around an obstacle how does that make them feel? When they feel pain or loss, betrayal or love, how did experiencing that change them? Are they now once burned, twice shy? Facing defeat along one path, do they turn to another path with pessimism or optimism? Do they lose trust? Regain it? Do they doubt? or become more confident?

For your story in November, consider that you are writing to find the answer to two questions:

  1. What does the main character want with all their heart and why?
  2. What will change about them as a result of their struggle to achieve this?

I’ve talked before about how, even when you’re writing a romance, characters do not set out to find a life partner (except in an arranged marriage, because obtaining that is a condition for something else they want). How their life will change as a result of the romance materially (moving from scrabbling to rich) or emotionally (family love that unconditionally supports them after a life alone) is what matters. Often, they thought something else would be a much better way to achieve their goal than finding a romantic partner.

Premise: The main character moves to a new town, not to find new love, but to build a home and new life for himself and his young son, after his wife left him. He meets his old high school girlfriend at the local grocer and she helps him figure out how to tell a ripe tomato from one about to go bad, he’s not immediately thinking “I must marry her so I don’t have to make these decisions anymore,” he’s thinking “thanks, now I have a new skill.” The plot introduced the shopping as a challenge. The old girlfriend helped resolve it. She’s also not likely thinking “oh hey, I’ll marry him and help him with his kid.” They broke up for a reason. Exploring that is the story. The repeated encounters they have around town, the farmer’s market, the church, the local Goodwill office where he goes to get a line on a new job, these are plot. How they change as a result of each encounter, the problems they face, separately and together, will build a connection that they may eventually start to consider that their childhood breakup was just that, their childhood. They now see each other as potential partners, or one does, and the romantic plot arc truly begins as one sets a new goal of getting the other to see them as a romantic partner. But the single father’s old goal didn’t change. He still is motivated to create a home and a new life for himself and his son. He’s just modified it, adding the old girlfriend into the mental photograph as his new wife.

Goal, Motivation, Conflict

In this premise example, the plot is the steps in moving to the new town, the search for housing, and work, and challenges raising his son to be happy with him as his dad. That’s the goals of the main character. He’s motivated by the fact that he needs to do that to provide stability for himself and his son, which was caused by the upheaval of his wife leaving them and divorcing him. The conflicts in this plot are situations that he doesn’t have experience doing, either because his ex-wife did them, or unfamiliarity with getting them done in this place (“I need daycare, but I don’t know any of my neighbors and I don’t know what businesses to trust”) because his “hometown” has rhythms or places that feel foreign to him after so much time away.

We could move perfectly fine through a plot about that, but I think you can agree, it would feel shallow all actions and reactions. Readers will want to know how all this is affecting him. He’s alone because his wife left. Does he know why? Was it something he did? Something he didn’t do? How will that hinder his ability to form any new relationships? What does he now distrust about himself or his abilities to interact with people? If she left because of a flaw in him, will he see it and change himself to be a better person? Or will he instead learn the completely wrong lesson and become terribly different, harming even his relationship with his son? All that internal work he’s going to do is the story. Throughout the scenes of action you’re going to have to describe where he reflects or wallows, regresses or progresses emotionally.

Chew on that. Hit comment and leave me your thoughts. Then come back next week for another think-piece about writing your way to a successful 50k.

~ Lara

A DOCX (Microsoft Word) version of this file will be included in the full packet available on the last of these four posts. Subscribe to my blog to be alerted when new posts are published. ~ LZ

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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