Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple cycles of risk and failure (the narrative flow), before achieving a resolution.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it.  How he deals with the problem reveals who he really is.  What you do is who you are.

Whoever your attention stays focused on, that’s who the story is about.  The hero doesn’t just solve a physical problem, he’s also caught in an ethical dilemma created by his role in the situation.

Stories are journeys–not only through physical landscapes but emotional realms as well.  They’re metaphors for life, the expression of truths by means of symbolic representation.  As such, they’re hypertrue.

At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death.  The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal.  It’s the fear of loss.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

What your characters are afraid of is a choice.  You choose to be afraid.  Or not.  FEAR.  False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything And Run.  We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them.  We decide what the consequences are going to be.  So too with our characters.

Every scene must serve a specific purpose.  Every scene should propel the story forward.  If it doesn’t move the characters closer to the resolution of the problem (or if it’s simply not interesting), cut it.

All the separate arts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything in the end.


  1. Plot

Plot is the narrative that drives the resolution of the story.  It rises from what your characters want and need.

If STORY is dropping your character into a ditch, PLOT is watching him try to climb out.

Finding plot for character-driven stories.  Ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?”  Then do it.  How he overcomes the obstacle or challenge is the story’s plot.

Plotting (or outlining) – the mapping out of specific story points before the text is written.  Establishing narrative guideposts in advance.  Plotting need not be rigid or a crutch.  Be flexible.  Let the story flow where it will in unexpected directions, then recalibrate accordingly.

That said, plotting is a tool not universally employed by the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants.

An outline breaks the story down structurally.  A synopsis summarizes the story in a compressed narrative.

The process is highly idiosyncratic.  There is no right way to outline.  Example: mine is nonlinear.  There is only the way that works for you.

Remember the Five W’s, Plus an H

  • Who – the character
  • What – the problem
  • When and Where – the setting
  • Why – the purpose; the reason your character needs to solve the problem
  • How – the plot


  1. Backstory

What’s the point?  Your backstory exists to serve the story proper.

If story is character + setting + problem, how your character solves the problem is shaped by his backstory.  Plot rises from what your characters want and need.  Your backstory informs the characters in how they go about getting what they need, but it’s not a principal focus.

Backstory is context.  It exists to inform and give meaning to the plot.  Equal parts worldbuilding, characterization, and hindsight.  If you ignore your backstory, your character’s actions won’t feel true.

Characters in short fiction have no less backstory than do characters in novels.  You just can’t use it all.  You as the author have to be okay with that.

Backstory can–and most likely should–be cut when irrelevant to the plot.


  1. Endings

How many of you have a story and no idea how to end it?

If a story is about your character’s resolution of a problem, the ending can only go in one of two ways.  He succeeds, or he fails.  That’s it.  Everything else is a ripple or consequence of those two states.

The nature of the ending is inherent in the nature of the beginning.

The setting will inform the solution.

Knowing how your story ends in advance will help streamline your narrative flow and reduce word count, particularly in short fiction.

Ask yourself: What do you want your ending to accomplish?

The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it.  The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness.  It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.  The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.

If you don’t know what your ending will be, how do you know when you’ve arrived?



Orycon 38

I’ll be attending Orycon this coming Saturday and Sunday, November 19-20, with five panels and a reading.  (Friday will be spent roaming the streets of Portland looking for a protest to join, if the Trumpkins don’t outlaw them first.)  Here is my schedule:

Saturday Nov 19

1:00pm – Backstory: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

3:00pm – Short Stories, Novelettes, Novellas, and the Markets Who Love Them (moderator)

5:30pm – Reading: “Through the Looking Glass, Darkly”

8:00pm – Star Trek: Reboot (moderator)

Sunday Nov 20

10:00am – Endings: Cuddling with the Reader (moderator)

12:00pm – Revision: Path to Better Writing or Way to Never Finish?