Don’t Lose the Plot

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story here?


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.


or here?


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 ; )

And a post script here about a book recently written using Johnny as a springboard:


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

7 responses to “Don’t Lose the Plot

  • atelljd

    Thank you for all the tips! They’ll certainly be useful during my writing journey.

    -A. Tell

  • Tony McFadden

    How true.

    And even the best story can fall flat on its face if the structure isn’t there.

    If you take apart enough successful books you’ll start to notice a pattern.

    – The stasis ends with a disturbance at pretty much the same point in the telling of each of the story.

    – There is an event, or clue, or action by someone else which changes the direction the hero must travel, at pretty much the same point in each of the stories.

    – the final piece of the puzzle, leaving the protagonist with all the information he or she needs and a final obstacle-filled run to the end happens, you guessed it, at the same place in every single successful book on the shelves.

    And the character arc will also follow a similar pattern. The hereo, first or all, NEEDS to be the one who saves the day/girl/guy/world from certain collapse. No one ese can do it for her/him.

    And the character development, in the simplest of terms, follows an “Orphan -> Wanderer -> Warrior -> Martyr” path of four, roughly equal, parts to the story.

    They start as an orphan, the disturbance knocks them off their well-trod path and they are wandering, wondering, essentially, what this new path is all about. The hero’s direction is change to the correct direction and they now have purpose – a warrior. And when the final clue lands in their lap, and they know what they have to do, they are willing to die to get it done.

    Like you said, “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.” This underlying structure is just that, a framework. and one that has shown to be successful.

  • jpbohannon

    Well done. Thanks for the post. I loved the intro–it did what an intro is supposed to, it pulled me in. (Even though I misread “economic climate” for “electronic climate” which made sense to me as well.) Again, thanks.

  • Besma at Life Demiraged

    I like how you’ve broken it down for us. Simple and concise, easy enought to remember.

  • boldbohemian

    Good tips to remember when I have time to start the novel that is in my head.

  • Tuesday Tip « Adventures in Writing

    […] Don’t Lose the Plot ( […]

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