Story v Plot


The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.

Story: what happened

Plot: the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps your readers engaged.

Why is this important?  From Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction:

…Yet readers still want to wonder what happened next, and unless you make them wonder, they will not turn the page. You must master plot, because no matter how profound or illuminating your vision of the world may be, you cannot convey it to those who do not read you.

To illustrate the difference between story and plot, I’ve got outlines for two novels. In each case I start in with a list of events. (If you’re interested in how the process itself works for me, I’ve written about that in various places, for instance, here.)

One: Fatal Car Accident

A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:

August 29 2008. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been traveling behind a 2004 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, hit the cement barrier, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.

Witness JMC stated he had been traveling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.

Multiple fire departments were at the impact site at the bottom of the cliff. The fire had been put out by the time we reached them. Two victims released to the coroner at approximately 11:45 am. No identifying documents survived the fire. The wreckage is still being processed. The case has been handed over to Detective Ann Uribe.

These are the facts, and they are singularly unsatisfying. Was this a mechanical malfunction, or something more sinister? Detective Uribe’s report will not directly address this questions. It will simply provide more facts and raise further questions.

The victims have been identified as Georgia Jackson, age 34 and her daughter Milly, age 3.

Forensics report no immediate evidence of mechanical failure. Preliminary findings from the coroner indicate no alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. The mother’s driving record was clean. No criminal history. No history of psychiatric illness. The driver was a pediatric nurse at Stanley Memory Hospital. No overt hostilities with coworkers.

Married to Robert Jackson, a pediatrician. The marriage was, by all reports, a functional one without conflict or financial difficulties. One son survives, James, aged six.

Robert Jackson has no document history of drug abuse or any other compulsive behavior. Both father and son were visiting with Robert Jackson’s sister Rayanne and her family in Springfield, and had been there for three days at the time of the accident.

Six weeks ago Milly Jackson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. According to the doctor treating her, she was responding well to treatment and her prognosis was very good. Interviews with family members, coworkers and friends indicate that there were no overt suicidal gestures. We have been unable to contact the driver’s mother, who is traveling in South America. An interview with her might provide more insight into her daughter’s state of mind.

There are some strong indications here of what might have happened, but we only have part of the story. And still, the facts you do have, the things you know add up to something that won’t let go. You want to know what happened, and why Georgia and her daughter died.

Every novelist will approach this differently, but here’s a method that has worked well for me in the past. My experience is that old-fashioned index cards are the best way to proceed. On each card I enter one fact about Georgia’s life based on what I know already. I lay out the cards in chronological order, and consider. What other events in Georgia’s life are important? As I work, facts and scenes, bits of dialog come to me. Each goes on a card, until I have a chronological accounting of major facts in her life:

1. Georgia Adams is born into a middle class family in a small town.

2. When she is three, her younger brother Michael is born.

3. In grade school she is praised for her meticulous, careful ways.

4. At age seven, her brother dies of leukemia.

5. She gets through high school and nursing school, still careful and thorough in all her work.

6. As a pediatric nurse she is fiercely protective of her charges, who love her. However, she never manages to make a connection to parents.

7. She marries a pediatrician she works with, someone she admires for his skill and perceptive way with children.

8. They have two kids, a boy named James and three years later, a daughter they call Milly.

9. At age three, Milly is diagnosed with leukemia.

10. On a cold February morning, Emma takes her daughter to the hospital for a chemotherapy treatment and everything goes as expected.

11. On the way home, Georgia purposefully drives the car off a cliff.

spellingbeecardNow you’ve got something – but it’s still only in its infant stages. We know the facts, but it’s all very clinical. We don’t have a plot. This is where you start shuffling your index cards, because the truth is, you could start telling this story anywhere. As the characters take on form, possibilities suggest themselves:

Card #6: start with a scene in which Georgia is being peppered with questions by the oblivious and disruptive parents of a sick kid, and she comes close to losing her temper – but doesn’t. She never does.

Card #11: Officer Rodriquez tells his mother the story of the accident. He’s only been on the job for three months, and he’s finding it difficult to cope with such a tragedy.

Card #3: Georgia wins a city-wide spelling be because she is the only fifth grader who can spell intravenous. Her parents are absent.

Card #11: We experience the funeral from Paul’s perspective, or his father’s.

Card #7: From Georgia’s own POV we walk through the house she and her husband are thinking of buying when they are newly married. In her mind she keeps comparing it to her childhood home.

Card #11: Detective Uribe interviews Georgia’s husband Paul.

There are dozens and dozens of possible starting points. Any of them could work, but only one will work best for you.On the other hand, most readers don’t think of plot as a four letter word. They don’t think of it as a word at all. They want a compelling story, and a reason to turn the page. The trick is, finding that starting point.You’re wondering why you can’t tell the story from beginning to end. Of course you could do that, but most authors can’t afford to take the chance. You’ve got maybe two pages to hook your reader. You might be able to do that with beautiful prose about Georgia’s childhood home, her mother’s diffidence about having children, the stunted apple tree outside the kitchen window. There is one genre that values prose and imagery and characterization above plot. If you’re hoping to catch the interest of the lit-criterati, that stunted apple tree might be the perfect place to start.

The index card approach works well for me, because it makes me really think. Once I find the right place to start, I may never refer to my index cards again. Or if I do, I might see how the story evolved in a different direction than I had anticipated.

Best of all, it gives me a way to watch Georgia grow up and turn into the woman who drives over that cliff with her three year old daughter strapped into her car seat. Because I understand how she got there, I can, if I do my job right, make you see it too.

Two: See what you can do with this story. Where does your plot start?

  1. Marge Lawson is born to a middle class family in Toledo in the spring of 1954.
  2. By the time she is ten, she’s the oldest of seven kids. Her mother depends on her help.
  3. She doesn’t do well in school but she’s highly praised by the parish priest and all the other mothers in the neighborhood for her dedication to her family, her housekeeping and childrearing skills.
  4. She lives at home taking care of the family after graduation, and is still there when all the other kids are in homes of their own, many in the neighborhood. Her mother dies and she takes care of her invalid father until she’s thirty-five, when he dies.
  5. Her priest introduces her to the new principal of the high school, and after a courtship Gordon Johnson proposes. Marge accepts because it seems like the thing to do.
  6. For the next twenty five years she raises two kids and takes care of the house. She is widely admired for her housekeeping skills and the care she gives her husband, kids and garden. She cooks every meal from scratch, launders and irons every piece of clothing. She has little time for activities outside the house, and doesn’t mind. Her family is everything.
  7. Her kids grow up more than a little spoiled, and once they go off to college they are gone for good. She doesn’t hear from them very often.
  8. One day she goes shopping and learns that the brand of spray starch she has always used to iron her husband’s shirts is no longer being produced. She spends the next week trying out every other brand she can find, and settles finally but unhappily on an alternative.
  9. Her husband, in a bad mood because his beloved baseball team has lost two games in a row, snaps at her when she bemoans the state of the shirts she’s just ironed. He tells her he doesn’t give a damn about the shirts, and would she just shut up finally about spray starch? Get a life, he tells her.
  10. Late that night, Marge gets up because she can’t sleep. She gets the iron, plugs it in, turns it on the highest setting, and then buries it under the blankets at the foot of the bed. Then she goes downstairs and makes coffee while she waits.
  11. When she is taken in to be questioned in the matter of her husband’s suspcious death, all she can talk about is spray starch, and how things will never be the same since they took away the only kind she could depend on.So this is a chronological accounting of Marge’s life. It could go on, of course. How she adjusts to prison or a facility for the criminally insane, for example. The letters she writes to her kids would be pretty interesting, I think. But to tell this story in order like this would be a mistake. Moving back and forth in time, across perspectives and points of view lends a certain kind of dramatic tension that keeps the reader engaged and turning the page. The reader is looking for a reason to keep reading, you know. The reader wants to be swept away, enchanted, engrossed, absolutely mezmerized, but most readers don’t have the patience for long build ups. They want some hint, pretty darn quick, about what kind of story this is, what kind of conflicts are going to be moving things along, and what the payoff will be.

Maybe I’d start when Marge’s story when she is twelve and angry that she can’t go out with her friends, so she’s careless and burns herself with the iron as her mother is praising her for her dedication. Maybe I would start on the day her father dies, the conversation she has with him. I imagine he tells her some truths she doesn’t want to hear. She would spend the first years of her marriage convincing herself that he was wrong, that she was happy taking care of her family. Then I might jump forward to her in prison, age seventy, writing a letter to her granddaughter. She could tell stories about her life, either in complete denial (in which case you’ve got an unreliable narrator to work with, where you tell two stories at once) or with some insight that comes with distance. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, working in the prison laundry, and she needs to explain why that’s reasonable. The scene where she gets up and gets the iron to put it in the bed — you could start with that, but then you’ve got to handle the pacing very carefully.

Plotting is the arrangement of elements of a story into a dramatically effective whole. This is not the only definition of plot, of course, but it’s most generally what people mean when they are talking about the writing process.

Cinderella Revisited: The prince speaks

Have you ever been disappointed in a book or movie, but not been able to say why?  This short intro to storytelling might help you figure that out. Revised from an earlier, ever evolving post.

At the center of any story is at least one conflict. A person can be at conflict with him- or herself; a town can be in conflict with a corporation or a bully or a plague; every relationship, ever, has experienced conflicts, small and large.

Of course, not every conflict is interesting.

Universal storytelling truth 1: Well adjusted, happy people do not make interesting fiction.

Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. Take Ellen, for example. She’s been obsessed with the granddaddy of a trout her father could never catch. Woman vs. trout? Or maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe Ellen has a hard time of letting go of relationships, has regrets about her last conversation with her father, or is having second thoughts about shipbuilding school.

A place can be at conflict with nature. A town and a river; a farmstead and a drought. A conflict can be very obvious and in-your-face (he loves her but she loves somebody else) or very subtle (can he face the truth about himself?).

Universal storytelling truth 2: The conflict on the surface masks some larger conflict. “I want you to pay my parking ticket” might really be “I want you to accept responsibility for me and everything I am.” “You never take out the garbage” might be “I’m angry at you for messing up my life and I’m going to make you pay.”

Universal storytelling truth 3: Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal in some way. It might not look on the surface to be the case, but they are.  A woman incapacitated in a wheel chair, unable to feed herself, hardly able to talk, can be a powerful presence in the life of a young, healthy daughter.

Power takes many forms.

Universal storytelling truth 4: Conflict moves. The power in any relationship is not static; it shifts back and forth, and the friction is what moves the storytrain forward. This is how tension is created. This is why the reader turns the page.

Take for example the classic fairytale of Cinderella, and her story arc. But where do you start? Here’s a way that works for me: I sit down with the primary characters and ask them some questions, the most basic one of which is simple: an interview.

Me: Hey, Cinderella! What’s important to you at this point in your life? What do you most want, right now?

Cindy: I’d like a pretty dress.

Me: And why do you want a pretty dress?

Cindy: Because my step-sisters have pretty dresses. You need a pretty dress to go to the ball.

Me: So, go out and get yourself a dress.

Cindy: I have no money, and my stepmother won’t give me any. And anyway, I have all this housework to do.

Me: It sounds like your stepmother is a bitch.

Cindy: It’s all my father’s fault for dying.

So we started with the dress, but we ended up with a lot more. The bottom line is that Cindy’s life has been miserable since her father died. She misses him. She’s furious with him. She feels powerless in the face of her stepmother’s cruelty and stinginess. And she’s not especially smart or willing to think. So that’s one main character. We know quite a lot about Ella of the Cinders now, but we don’t know the stepmother.

Another interview will be necessary.

Me: What is your name anyway? I’ve never heard it mentioned.

SM: Of course not. Of course you’ve never heard my name. It would be inconvenient for me to have a name, then you’d have to think of me a a person. My name is Georgia.

Me: Georgia, can you tell me what you want right now?

Georgia: Yes. I want to be free of this house and responsibility for these teenage girls. They’ll drive me to drink. My own two are bad enough, but then there’s Henry’s girl. Married a week and he drops down dead, leaves me with this old junk of a house and his kid. I can just see myself in twenty years with three cranky old maids whining for more bonbons and Manolos.

Me: So really what you want is…

Georgia: I’m so angry I don’t know what I want. I’m so angry that every time I look at Cindy I want to pinch her. She looks just like Henry, you know. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t keep her here unless she’s willing to earn her keep. I need all my energy to find husbands for my two, or I’ll be stuck with them forever. Wait, I know what I want. I want to open up a kiosk at JFK. Perfume and makeup. I’ll get all free samples, and I’ll look good all the time for all the pilots and businessmen who go through the terminal. I’ll find a healthier husband. One with a lot of money, but no kids.

One more interview. 

Me: We never really get to hear much from you during the story. What are your goals for yourself by the time it’s all over?

Prince: Look, I have to get married and produce an heir. And you know, this royalty business isn’t easy. Every day it’s something else: supermarket grand openings, new bridges  to be christened, speeches made to Young Mothers Against Violence in Fairytales, the list goes on and on. I need a wife who can help me with all this. Somebody organized, who can prioritize. And who won’t ask me a lot of questions.

Me: Really, that’s all you’re hoping to get out of this ball? A wife-business partner-mother-of-your-heir?  If that’s the case, let’s imagine for a minute that the fairy godmother comes to you. What would you ask her for?

Prince: You’ll laugh.

Me: I will not. I promise. 

Prince: I want to go to college to study medieval German literature. You know, old those old Norse myths. Brunhilde and the Nibelungen, can’t get enough of that stuff. I want a library card and a peaceful life so I can read about Siegfried and Loki for days at a time.

Me: Um. So you don’t want to be a prince at all?

Prince: Hell no. But a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

So now we know three of the characters. We understand why Cindy and Georgia are in conflict. The underlying anger, the resentments, the dashed hopes.  Of course, unless we decide to give Cindy a backbone and a real personality, we’re going to have to inject another element to even out the playing field. We’ll have to bring in fairy godmothers or good witches or something to make up for Cindy’s insipid self.

If we pursue the story as traditionally told, we now have the option of continuing on past the marriage vows. And things don’t bode well. Insipid Cindy is going to end up with a husband who really wants a social secretary — something she has no training for — who will give birth once in a while and otherwise leave him alone. She’s a little dim, but she’s not going to be happy for long. And Georgia will have the last laugh.

Unfortunately, this interviewing of characters isn’t as easy as it might look. Characters aren’t always forthcoming. You can’t just ask the character what they want; you’ve got to figure out why they think they want what they say they want.

One tool you can’t do without: patience. This is not something that will happen in a hurry.

So now you’ve got the core of the story, and the story arc comes next. The basics:

Almost always, a satisfying story has three basic elements: conflict, crisis and resolution of the conflict. This is true of stories on a screen or stage or on a page. Think of: Romeo & Juliet, Terminator, Moby Dick, Emma, Clueless, The Help, The Time Traveller’s Wife.

With those points in mind, have a look at this simple schematic of how tension and story arc work together is adapted from Janet Burroway’s classic text on writing fiction, now in its sixth edition (click on the image to enlarge).


If you study it, you’ll see how power moves back and forth between the forces of good (Cinderella) and evil (the Stepmother). Kinda like capture the flag, but without the flag. You can take any novel or movie or play or episode of television and look at it in these terms to figure out how it’s structured (or where the narrative begins to lose its rhythm).

One of the movies I sometimes use when I teach this stuff (specifically because it is seriously flawed) is Notting Hill. If you think through the points above and try to fit that movie into this schematic, you’ll see where it goes wrong. An important point: sometimes a novel or a movie goes wrong, but you forgive it because some other element you truly admire (the acting, the cinematography, something) convinces you to overlook the flaw. But the flaw is still there, and figuring it out will help you with your own writing.


You could sit down and think up conflicts all day long. When I taught creative writing I had a little store of games that generated conflicts where you wouldn’t expect to find one. What conflict could there possibly be between a grandmother and a kitten? Between a soccer coach and the old deaf lady who is his neighbor? If you’re starting with a new character or a character you know very well, you still have to figure out the underlying conflicts — both the bigger and the smaller ones.

Good, balanced, healthy people in happy situations are sweet, but boring. You want to be related to them, but you do not want them populating the only novel you’ve got to keep you busy on an eight hour flight.

Review: Thieving Forest by Martha Conway


 Martha ConwayNovels set in the eastern U.S. in the early 19th century always interest me, in part, of course, because I have written a couple of them myself. I’m curious to see how other authors cope with the challenges of historical research in this period, Native American characterizations (especially difficult and important), and specifically the portrayal  the lives of women who survived in tremendously difficult circumstances. 

My personal test of a great novel is one in which I forget to pay attention to these issues which otherwise consume me.  I was maybe three pages into Thieving Forest before the story caught me in its snare, and all the questions and observations I normally juggle while reading went away. 

This story concerns five young adult sisters, recently orphaned, who are stolen away from their home by the Potawatomi, a tribe they have always been friendly with. All the sisters receive attention in the story — each of them dealing with shock and violence and loss in her own way — but it is the youngest who carries the largest part of the story. By fortunate circumstance Susanna is close enough nearby to see her sisters being taken, but not to be taken herself.  

She sets off to find them, making her way through forests and swamps of what is now Ohio and north to the Great Lakes. I was reminded a little of Cold Mountain, another story of someone who must survive a long and perilous journey to redemption.

Conway tells a complicated story with grace, weaving multiple plot lines together in a way that never jolts. Her prose is elegant in its simplicity but still evocative in its imagery. Her research is top notch, but more than that, she has an eye for the perfect detail. A older Indian family friend who lives in her village carries his belongings in an old leather shoe he wears on a string around his neck, for example.  

If you like historical fiction, you should really put this title on your list of books to be read. I

Try your hand at snappy dialogue

This is an exercise I use when I’m teaching creative writing. I always get a kick out of it, and the students do, too. I’m thinking it might engage the interest of some of the people who stop by here — and who need another opportunity to comment and thus get entered into the giveaway.

To start, I provide a question. For example: Do you live around here?

Goal: Write a one sentence reply that gets the whole story going at a gallop.  

Example answers:

What kind of question is that? I look like a bum to you?

Sure do. That little yellow job over there is mine, all nine hundred fifty square feet. Shingled the roof myself, which is how I come to do such mischief to my back.

Detective, not to embarrass you or nothing, but you got mustard on your tie, did you know that?


For each of these replies you should have a some impressions about the character. The third person is a smart ass who likes tweaking authority figures. The second one is  talkative old man who lives by himself, and is lonely, and tries to engage anybody who asks him a question. And the first … there’s room for some interpretation there. A female, a male, young, old, all you have for sure is an attitude. But it could take you places, that attitude.

So here’s another question to open a scene. See if you can come up with a one sentence (or so) reply that gets the story going, and gives us something solid about the primary character.

How did you get that black eye?

No restrictions on who is asking this question. Could be a spouse, a stranger on a bus, a barista, an ER nurse, anybody. See if you can come up with a response.