I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.
Will I begin it?
That’s all that’s in it.
Irish nursery rhyme.
Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.
Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
man vs. nature
man vs. man
man vs. the environment
man vs. machines/technology
man vs. the supernatural
man vs. self
man vs. god/religion
Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.
A typical story structure might be plotted thus:
Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.
Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.
The main character is affected by the disturbance.
The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.
Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.
Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.
These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.
The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.
Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.
The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.
A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.
That’s all that’s in it.
September 12th, 2011 at 20:03
I disagree with what you say about having a good story being the key. Stories are recycled, such as Bible stories as you say. Shakespeare didn’t invent any of his own plots, it was all about how he wrote it which made it what it is. The telling of the story is the important part, just as a good joke can be told badly. No plot will work with cliched characters. I am not an editor, but I am a reader, and I would rather read interesting characters than flashy plot. No doubt plot is important, but good characters create the plot and lead you into it. As for recycling old plot ideas, characters are essential as it is the characters which make the story something different rather than the same yarn told again. How you write is also a part of “retelling” the story in a new way. Thanks for writing, I like your posts.
September 12th, 2011 at 20:17
Hi, I take your point and agree with it up to a point – telling the story with good use of language and good character development will do everything to enhance your story and make it a better story. However, my point is that if you have good language, great characters etc… but you don’t have a good story, you’ll find it hard to get published. If, on the other hand, you have a great story but iffy use of language and cliched characters – you won’t find it so difficult (or at least, less difficult). I’m not saying I support this reality, I simply recognise it’s existence. It is a major point of debate in the (currently nervous) publishing world. For example, I was told by the head of my MA that writing is all about language, language is all that matters. I was then told by my agent to ignore that advice and that it all boils down to story. And most of my fellow writers have been told the same by their agents. Therefore, my point is, if you want to get on and get published, make sure you have a cracking story with a well-constructed plot before you start to think of anything else. If you want to write beautiful works and are not too bothered about being published, that is of course a different story (so to speak).
September 13th, 2011 at 10:34
I had tried to write a story, it was about me only, but when i tried to build the plot and characters i was constantly getting away from main story, I wanted details to introduce in the plot in regular interval but still i was not able to manage the hold on plot. Every chapter i wrote was not clinching hard to the main story. It was disappointing so i procrastinated it. I still have the story and a will to write it down. but i am stuck.
Also in every chapter i wanted to paint an incident and weave the main story around it, but then every chapter was a story in itself, it had a plot, it had intro, built up and climax, but not the effect i wanted to have. I am looking forward for more tips from you on the same, someday i want to complete my story!
September 13th, 2011 at 17:40
It sounds like you come up against the same problems I do… Frustrating, isn’t it. I think I find the ‘blurb’ exercise good for this – it is a constant reminder of what I am trying to say with my WIP. I suggest just getting the entire story down on paper and then come back and edit out the superfluous afterwards.
September 15th, 2011 at 09:03
Should I write down the whole story as it happened, then break it into chapters where I want to cut the story and then taking each chapter as a story in itself build that?
In this way I can also get rid of the unwanted characters..
Is this the right way to do it? I am very new in this field and also I had not undertaken any professional training of literature, English is not my primary language but I am more comfortable in using English for writing, suggest me for more stuff to read and learn!!
I am grateful for your reply!!
September 15th, 2011 at 17:36
Hi Farija, It is lovely to hear from you and I’m impressed to hear you’re trying to write in your second language. It’s a challenge and I’m sure you’ll rise to it.
Everyone writes in different ways, and there isn’t a ‘correct way’ to write, so I can’t really advise you on that. You’ll have to find what works best for you.
I’m the sort of writer that likes to get the story down on paper in one frantic made splodge, full of every kind of mistake imaginable but the story is there. Then I start giving it shape – as you say, divide it into sections and chapters, cut out the unnecessary language, descriptions, dialogue, characters etc… I don’t really plan my story either, I just write and see where that takes me.
However, other writers plan meticulously and know exactly what they are doing with a chapter before they write it.
I suggest you experiment with short stories first and find the method of working that feels right for you. I hope that helps.
September 13th, 2011 at 10:47
Good gracious! I get ‘TICKS!’
In spite of revision chaos I do believe I meet your criteria!
I agree with you 100% about the merits or otherwise of good story. However engaging our characters, unless they are hanging around in a great yarn, what is the point of them?
Publishers/agents, whether we writers like it or not, do work to a particular formula. I may not like it – for instance – that they tend to dismiss prologues, but I’ve accepted the fact (& am now going cold turkey!)
Great post – thank you.
September 13th, 2011 at 17:37
Thanks for the comment, Carol. Yes, they do work to formula and they are largely focused on sales and stories sell. That in itself is a formula. Thanks for all you support for my blog.
September 13th, 2011 at 11:51
I also enjoy breaking down a favorite story to determine the structure. It’s a tremendous writing exercise.
September 13th, 2011 at 17:35
Isn’t it? And so revealing.
September 13th, 2011 at 15:13
Thank you so much for subscribing to my blog! I definitely agree with you about the story being extremely important. Without a good, solid, engaging plot, it’s impossible to hook the reader, no matter how well it is written. But I’m not so sure that an author’s fantastic plot so thoroughly blocks out all the technical errors/mishaps that he/she might make. To me, at least, the way something is written is just as important as what is being written. An author’s language, I think, really affects how his/her content is received by the reader, and if there are too many errors or if the language is mundane and poor, I would find it hard to navigate my way through the book. I think it goes both ways, really. If you have a good story, you need to write it well, and vice versa.
September 13th, 2011 at 17:35
Yes, you are right – a beautifully developed character, well-chosen language, superbly crafted sentence etc… serve to complement and strengthen a story. Still, it doesn’t take away from the crass reality that a badly written good story will sell in its millions whereas a sublimely crafted work with a weak storyline will hardly shift at all. Publishers look at the bottom line and this is what they see: story=sales. So my point is, whether or not we writers like it, we stand a better chance of getting published if we have a great story. This does not mean you should ignore all other areas of the craft, not at all – if that were so, my blog would be a waste of time – but if you ask what the single most important element is, the answer is ‘story’ (if you want to publish a novel, that is). Now, once you’ve your great story, then you should work on creating those well-rounded characters, perfect sentences etc… to make your work truly sublime. So, yes, all the elements count but story trumps all.
September 13th, 2011 at 17:10
A famous writer (and I can’t remember which one, and web search doesn’t help) once said, “There are only two plots: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
September 13th, 2011 at 17:23
Yes, I’ve heard that one too – and I can’t think of an example where it does not apply. Thanks for commenting.
November 7th, 2011 at 11:29
I am focusing on creating the characters and plot. I want to ensure that these are solid – without them being solid, the story will fall apart eventually