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.
December 6th, 2011 at 15:08
That’s brilliant! I so appreciate your posts!
December 6th, 2011 at 16:02
I love this exercise. Thanks for sharing it.
December 6th, 2011 at 16:02
Well put! Your post is a very clear and concise examination of what I work on, making sure that the story is the thing. This is another great post that I am sure I will refer back to frequently.
December 6th, 2011 at 17:04
I always enjoy your posts. It’s like being back in school.
December 6th, 2011 at 18:17
I hope that’s a good thing, Diego… : )
December 6th, 2011 at 20:54
Anthropologists and other scientists once thought that making tools was what set humans apart from all other animals. Then we realized apes and other animals make simple tools. But when you look at the importance (and similarity) of story telling cross-culturally, maybe it is one of the fundamental elements that makes us human.
December 7th, 2011 at 04:22
As I read this I realized I was able to pinpoint scenes in my story where some of these things happened. It was kind of fun to break it down that way, and to watch my story play out like a movie. (Especially imagining the final scene that I haven’t written yet.)
Another great post!
December 7th, 2011 at 08:07
Yes! That’s gold!! Thanks for sharing, I will definitely think about these tips 🙂
December 7th, 2011 at 21:23
thanks for sharing, nice!
December 7th, 2011 at 21:26
This post is great! I will definitely give that exercise a try! Thanks for posting!
December 7th, 2011 at 21:33
Great stuff and thanks for the ‘follow’. Harlan Coben is just one example of an author who expertly follows your tips above. It’s that ‘classical Hollywood narrative’ construct: conflict and resolution. It has its literary detractors but like you say, it appeals to publishers.
December 7th, 2011 at 21:46
Very interesting, Sue. Good points here.
As you mentioned there are no new plots…but what can make any story fresh is the way the particular writer tells it.
Of course I am a manipulator–of sorts–of words. But, believe me, I love a good story too!
Thanks for sharing.
December 8th, 2011 at 02:54
Yes indeed. Many an author of potboilers has made a good living recycling the same old plots over and over. The genre of Westerns wouldn’t even exist without that. Or Romance novels.
December 8th, 2011 at 23:17
Having recently completed a continuing ed. course on Memoir Writing, I went over your story points and realized, “Hey, that’s the story of my life.” Well, anyone’s life, really. So, in a way, my life plot has already been written, but the characters, situations, goal and era are unique. Hey, and I know how it ends! (*Spoiler alert*) I die, and that’s my new stasis! Okay, seriously, thanks for the outline. It’s clear, concise, and it works. That’s helpful because I sometimes feel like I’m writing random scenes with no idea how it will fall together.
December 14th, 2011 at 20:48
This post is awesome. I didn’t make much of an outline, I just wrote down my idea, some simple plans, and began. I know I have done well so far, the three people that critique my work are mostly positive. I knew I would have to fix some, its my first draft. I think this will help a lot. Thank you for the post.
December 18th, 2011 at 22:17
I think most people want books that read like movies these days. With online communication and social media tempering our minds for short bursts of information, it’s no wonder that writing has changed so drastically from the great classics of the early 20th century. Proust for example defies plot. What is Remembrance of Things Past about? His transcontinental sentences endlessly cross character sketches, cultural descriptions, and social critiques. It’s like plot is what is happening on the train, but Proust is looking out the window. Sometimes plot interrupts his gaze but mostly his eye is on the passing scenery that he has become detached from.
February 15th, 2013 at 21:54
My grandmother from Ireland, born about 1900, used to tell another version of that story.
“I’ll tell you the story of Johnny McGory (or McGlory?), and now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another about his fat brother, and now my story is done.”
August 9th, 2016 at 14:03
I’ve actually written a book based on the story about Johnny Magory!
I’d love if you could review it?
August 10th, 2016 at 09:05
Hi Emma-Jane, I’ve mentioned your book and supplied a link at the end of the article. Best, Sue.
October 15th, 2016 at 13:54
Bet you don’t know what a johnny-maggory is! It’s an old dialect term for a rose-hip, from the Irish mogóir, with the same meaning. See, there’s always more to the story than we think …! 🙂
February 12th, 2021 at 10:40
Yes amazing how a good storyteller gets remembered down generations too. My Scottish Great Grandfather used to entertain the bairns with Johnny Mcglory and The Wee Wee Man