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How to plan a story when plot is not really that important?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Feb 12, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    A question in another thread made me think that plots are not really that important when it comes to a story being good or not. I always approached making a story by thinking of a good plot first and never got anyway. I was trying to think of stories that have really good plots to use as a reference, but it turns out none of the stories I really like has a plot that is interesting or compelling in itself. All plots are simple and pretty banal when looked at in isolation.

    So the lesson I am taking from this is that a story is not actually about the plot.

    And that leaves me realizing that I have no idea what a story actually is and why stories are entertaining. How do you plan a story if the plot can be slapped together in two minutes? What else is there that you can plan? What are stories about?
  2. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    Stories are a combination of plot, setting and character, tied together by conflict. You can focus on all 4 in equal measure or you can put a heavier focus on one or two of them.

    If you have little plot then you'd better have great characters in a compelling setting.

    I am curious, do you have examples of stories you like with bad or little plot? And what makes the plots simple and banal?
    WooHooMan likes this.
  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

    The Scarlet Citadel by Robert Howard: Conan is in a cell and breaks out. He wanders around in the dungeon until he finds an imprisoned sorcerer whose powers are drained by a demonic plant. He kills the plant and the sorcerer offers him to take them out of the dungeon and to the other sorcerer who imprisoned them. He does and Conan kills his enemy. The End.

    Cold Light by Karl Wagner: Kane comes to a crumbling desert town and sits around being depressed. Some fanatic heroes arrive to kill him for his evil deeds. They threaten a woman who was nice to Kane and he comes out to face them. They fight and Kane kills them all. The End.

    The Hobbit by John Tolkien: The dwarves come to Bilbo and want him to help them fight a dragon and take back its treasure. They get separated and the dwarves get imprisoned, but Bilbo frees them and they continue to the dragon's mountain. Frodo talks with the dragon and the dragon flies away to attack the town where it is killed. Then the townspeople go to the mountain because they want the treasure, orcs show up, there's a big battle, and Bilbo goes back home. The End.

    Star Wars: Luke gets the droids with the Death Star plans and with Obi-Wan they go to deliver them to Alderaan. They find it is destroyed and get captured on the Death Star. Luke escapes from the Death Star, takes the plans and the rescued princess to the Rebels, and the Rebels attack and destroy the Death Star. The End.

    This is all trivial and banal. Nothing about this is interesting, exciting, or compelling. Having good characters and setting is something that most great stories have, but you always need to have the characters do things within the setting to have a story. But how do you give them something to do?
    Is it just having good characters following a banal plot in a a good setting? Is that all there is to it? I feel that there is something hugely important missing.
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar


    Just going to put this here again.

    Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by “and then—and then—” They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.

    [E.M.Forster, from Aspects of the Novel]
    I'd included this in another plot-related thread you started—some time ago. :sneaky:

    IF we use Forster's definitions, then a story might be nothing more than a chronological series of events. Can you write such a thing, forgetting to design a plot altogether? Sure. Why not? Well...sometimes, enjoyment comes simply from reading a series of interesting, loosely-connected events. Or, tales. But sometimes readers are looking for something more, a coherent "why-throughline" (to borrow again from that older conversation re: plot.)

    So it comes down to the kind of story you are planning to write and the kind of enjoyment you are wanting to enable for your readers.

    Designing a story that is just a series of events is much, much simpler than designing a story with a coherent why-throughline or plot. Plotting involves causality, so later events (including character decisions, unfolding realities, etc.) spring naturally, organically from prior events.

    Well, but if you summarize a plot, taking out the specifics—the specific characters in that book, the specific events that happened, and so forth—then yes, it's kinda banal, boring. But it's not boring after all, because of those specifics unfolding within and during the tale!
  5. Vaporo

    Vaporo Inkling

    You can summarize practically anything in that sort of banal manner. For example, the recent impeachment proceeding against the US president:

    The president did something that a lot of people thought was wrong. The House of Representatives thought so and began impeachment proceedings, but the Senate didn't agree, so he was not punished.

    It sounds so simple this way, but anyone living in the US during the last few months knows that this was actually a lengthy, incredibly nuanced and controversial political discussion that this summary completely glosses over. If you cut out all the middle stuff, then of course it will sound simple and banal.
  6. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I like Noire stories. The plots can often be direct and even simplistic, but that is where the entertainment comes from for me. The plot is [merely] the frame work for the story. It is how that story is then told that holds me. The Maltese Falcon isn't the most labyrinthine of plots and I can read it cover to cover in a day. In fact I find it hard to put down once I've started. I have to read it cover to cover.
  7. Yora

    Yora Maester

    But what is the middle stuff? What's the actual meat on the bones of a story? There is plenty of talk about plot and structure, and a good deal about how to detail the specifics of a scene. But I don't think I've ever come across anything about the middle level where you come up with scenes that are entertaining and not just checking off plot points.
    Firefly likes this.
  8. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I see plot as a chronological order of events of someone's life. I tend to focus on character and conflict over plot.

    I watched a TV show years ago, it was a drama and I can't remember the name but it was a pretty bland plot. A girl from the country side comes to a big city to track down her birth mother...she succeeds. Yet they made an entire series out of that basic plot. Not by adding more plot but by making the characters complex. This girl had zero external conflict. She knew where her birth mother lived and where she was, her obstacles were herself. Her personality, doubts, fears and insecurity. She was paralyzed by this fear that she would be rejected again. Her flaws were how myopic she was. She hasn't planned any other future for herself if this dream back fired on her so it became everything to her. She thought if she could make this woman like her she'd stand a better chance. So she got a job where this woman worked at her family business. She got close to the family and the there was an argument and this woman left the business and stopped having anything to do with her family. So that attempt failed. But this woman still had something to do with her baby niece. So this girl tried to become the babysitter.
    The plot was just a series of try and fail cycles. And the goal wasn't that interesting in itself. What made it interesting was her want behind this goal, how many knock she took, and how she was her own worse enemy. From the beginning it had doom written all over it. The characters personality constantly got in her way and lead to her down fall.

    I mean you can write out the plot of a book to sound as bland or complex as you like. I've seen this reading reviews from people who did or didn't like a book. Some see plot as the most important thing in a story and that characters must fit that. I think it's the other way round, even if you have a equal portion of all the elements. Conflict is still the bare bones of any story. Conflict comes from goal. Goal comes from character. Plot comes from character trying to succeed at their goal. I can think of quite a few movies and books were if the character had made a different decision the story could have gone in a different direction.
  9. Yora

    Yora Maester

    The thin that jumped into my head from that example is stakes. The question of why succeeding at the goal matters to the character.

    Looking at my examples from earlier, they all have quite interesting stakes:
    In the Conan story, Conan's goal is to escape the dungeon and kill the evil sorcerer who imprisoned him. But it matters to him because that sorcerer left his castle after Conan's capture to go and conquer his kingdom. The question is not so much if Conan can escape and kill him, which is basically a given, but if he can do it in time to save his kingdom.
    In the Kane story, it's a given that Kane will fight the fanatic heroes, and it is well within his ability to defeat them. The real question is if he even wants to save himself and whether he will decide to save the woman or sacrifice her for his own gain.
    In The Hobbit, the stakes are neither if Bilbo will survive or not (he certainly will), or if he gets his part of the treasure or not (it doesn't really matter). The question is what kind of person he will be when he comes out of the whole ordeal.
    Not sure about Star Wars, though. That story really might be carried entirely by exploring the setting and the spectacle of the action scenes.

    This was actually quite helpful, I think.
  10. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    I've always seen the plot as the pathway and the story as the careful drip feed of information that coaxes the reader along.

    The middle bit Yora is talking about is all the stuff the characters see along the way, how they feel about it and how they interrelate.

    In the very best books, all that middle stuff affects the story so much it can even abandon the writer and take the pathway in unexpected directions.
  11. Yora, I've never heard of anyone categorizing plots, those being that simplest of mechanisms at the heart of storytelling, as banal, boring, brilliant etc. They're just plots and plots are, at their core, nothing more than the bones of a building. As long as they're solid, well built and complete, the building will stand. To stick with that metaphor, you can go ahead and construct a building frame using the most advanced techniques and strongest available materials but, is it really any better under all the drywall than the basic two by four frame? And who, once all of the insulation, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors and drywall are in place, will really know the difference? Or care?

    You never notice the bones of any well made thing unless everything else around them goes wrong because, underneath it all, they are faulty.

    But basic is never faulty.

    That's the whole point of the two or three line summary. If it takes entire pages to summarize your plot or story, there's probably, in all likelihood, something wrong with your story.

    The most exciting and inventive plot in the world coupled with flat characters, lacking motivations, weak theme or scene structure and, of course, ineffective writing, won't go anywhere. And considering that every story you've mentioned is, in one circle or another and for its time, seen as a gem or classic of storytelling or film, we could all do worse than to have begun with those same simple concepts.

    I think we can all tend to over analyze the parts of story at the expense of the whole. The way everything works together is far more important to the success of the story. Any of us could spend a lifetime trying to come up with that brilliant one in a million clockwork plot, but if we can't write a scene that draws readers in and put words together in ways that cause you to turn the page, we'll never get them to discover what that plot was. Nor will the reader be missing out on anything for it. And let's be clear. The writer who does so was not a misunderstood genius or bypassed talent — they simply couldn't write a good story.

    Even multiple character arc books tend to have fundamentally simple plots at their core. The pieces and motivations are complex, the movements well planned and varied. Their themes resonate in our lives. The characters draw us in emotionally. The WOW moments offer us a chance to smile or go wide-eyed. Yet it is all wound around a simple core.

    Your opinion is, of course, quite valid and acknowledged, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what a GOOD book is and I worry that the tendency for any of us would be to create reasons not to write while searching for something elusive that will not, in the end, make our own, or any other story, better on the page in and of itself.
  12. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I find it often helps to talk about Tolkein, HP or ASOIAF because it puts everyone on the same page.

    ^^ This? No. This is closer to premise, where you're just trying to say what happens in broad strokes. A plot looks more like this:

    Starting Point: A hobbit lives a peaceful life but sometimes wonders about the wider world...
    Inciting Incident: A wizard raps on his door and marks his home as the meeting point for an adventure...
    Call to Action: When the dwarves leave, Bilbo must choose whether to go with them.

    I'll stop there.

    But understanding the structure of a plot is why the quote above reads like a garbled mess but even just breaking it down across basic story beats the way I did above begins to create tension. Bilbo must choose. Developing that sentence is what we call Act 1 of the plot. Who is Bilbo? Why does this choice matter? That's what plot is about.

    Now some plots are more subtle than others. Some plots, like Bilbo's, just appear on the character's doorstep. Others appear gradually as smaller choices pile up into bigger consequences. In my opinion the language and jargon we use for plotting isn't as flexible as it needs to be for all the ways that a plot can develop. But as writers it's important to understand how smaller how plot beats build into each other and turn a garbled mess into a story. It doesn't just happen.
  13. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Of course you can always go more granular and detailed and going down to smaller and smaller steps when describing the plot of an existing story.
    The challenge that I am seeing is that you have to begin the story idea at the very topmost layer with the smallest degree of granularity, and then work yourself down getting ever more detailed. If at the most basic and the highest level of abstraction all plots are bland and boring, how do I pick one to start the refining process with? I need to pick a starting point, but all starting points seem bad.
  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    It’s all about the type of story being told. Some stories are character focuses. Others are plot focused. Others still focus on the setting. And lastly, there are stories that explore a concept/ idea, and that’s the focus. It doesn’t mean that a plot focused story can’t have well developed characters. It just means the plot needs to be at the forefront.

    Orson Scott Card calls it the MICE quotient.

    MICE Quotient
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    The answer is to start wherever you want to, with whatever silly, stupid, cool, ridiculous, funny, dramatic thing you feel like, then you use the elements of plot, character development and worldbuilding to create the story from there.

    Here, a random event to start the process: A branch falls from a tree and kills someone. That's it. For no particular reason at all, that's the point I want to build a novel around.

    This one event immediately gives me three more decisions to make:

    Why did the tree branch fall?
    Who did the tree branch kill?
    And how does this affect the Main Character?

    I'm going to pick some answers that lean a little more towards the epic.

    The branch fell when a mischievous "tree mite" broke it.
    The branch killed a young woman who had just given a rousing speech about conquering evils and rebuilding the nation.
    It left the MC, the girl's older sister, jaded and heartbroken, sending her on a slow trek towards Machiavellian villainy.

    Okay, so, look. If you understand basic plot, character and worldbuilding, it's pretty straightforward to build the story out from there. It is from any given starting prompt, honestly. But you've got to make decisions. You've got to push your ideas. There's no time to second guess yourself. A novel is made through thousands of ideas - and thousands of decisions - and you need to own each one of them.

    It's not about finding the right decision, the right premise, the right idea, or the right novel to write. It's about training yourself in the skills it takes to make thousands of the right decisions, and to find thousands of the right ideas, so that whatever novel you write will come out representing your skills as an author.

    The answer is to make a thousand decisions and figure out which of those thousand decisions you were comfortable with so that the next thousand will be better.

    If you look at the techniques for plotting and character and worldbuilding, you'll have a better understanding of which decisions you have to make. But they're still yours to make, and nobody can do that for you.
  16. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    A plot isn't just the fine granularity. As Devor said it's the inciting incidents and choices the various characters make.

    For example, a mysterious box arrives in the post addressed from an ex lover

    MC decides he wants nothing to do with the ex so throws the box away unopened. End of story.

    OR, MC decides that, even though he wants nothing to do with the ex, he is too intrigued not to open the box. What does he find...
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  17. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    I think Devor's answer is probably the best answer. But I'll just add my own process.

    I don't start a story with plot, setting, character or conflict. I start a story with a set of idea's, a couple of scene's that excite me. For the Hobbit, I might start with the image of Bilbo sneaking in on Smaug and them having a conversation, with an image of Gandalf showing up unannounced at Bilbo's doorstep and maybe a scene in the middle like the attack on the party by wolves where they climb up the trees and Gandalf flings down burning cones.

    These 3 scenes are the seed of the story for me. With these I start asking myself questions. Why is Bilbo sneaking in on a dragon and is he alone? This leads to him being with a group of dwarves who want to claim back their treasure. But why do they bring a hobbit in the first place? Well, there's 13 of them in the party and that's an unlucky number. I realize here that I can add Gandalf showing up as a starting point, he brings the dwarves to Bilbo, which lets me tie the scene of Gandalf showing up into the rest of the story.

    How would the land around a dragon lair look like? Well, people would adapt. Which makes laketown a good idea. It's to be a dangerous journey, so we add in trolls and a dark forest. It's probably best if Gandalf disappears at some point, since he's too strong, so let's find an excuse for that. What happens to Bilbo at the end of the story?

    So developing a story for me is taking a couple of scene's I have in my head that I know are connected in a story and asking question about them. I investigate who, where and why. This gives me characters, setting and plot. They develop together.
    Yora likes this.
  18. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the best way to develop a story is to ask yourself questions.
    I was wondering: how do you know what questions to ask yourself?

    It seems like if you get a questionnaire going without an idea where it will end-up, you’ll just start diving into trivial details that wouldn’t really do much in developing what scene comes next or how the climax will look or any of the real meat of a story.

    I’m naturally not a question-y kind of person so this method of plot-building is pretty unnatural for me but it seems like a useful writing habit to develop.
  19. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    Those choose your own adventure books where you make a choice at the end of every page are excellent lessons in plot construction.
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    The questions come from knowing the basics. A plot’s Call to Action in Act 1 is about the character being forced to make a decision, so if we’re writing the Hobbit, we’re asking questions about his decision to go on an adventure, why is this difficult for him, why is this the right Hobbit for this story, how can we craft this scene to show both his reason for joining them as well as why this is the most ridiculous idea in the world for him...

    That’s how Act 1 works, so that’s what we ask, questions that lead to the call to action, and try/fail cycles and midpoints, and A plots and B plots and on and on through Acts 2 and 3 or through whatever structure, makeshift or formal you come up with.

    Or we ask about the character, needs and wants, identities, motivations, and stress habits and flaws... or about the world building, ecology and magic and government...

    The questions are about skill and experience, and finding the right questions are what all the how to books and rules and fights over formulas and whatever else are about.

    But ultimately the questions are about following your own interests in your story. What interests you about your characters and setting and conflict? Follow up on that. Learn how to make it your own.

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