Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple solutions with increasing levels of risk and failure, before achieving a resolution.

The character is the demonstration of the problem.  He is the expression of the problem.

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.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

All the separate parts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything.

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.

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



  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 shithole, 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.

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 (mine is nonlinear). Tere is only the way that works for you.

Plotting is a tool not universally accepted in the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants:

Excerpted from Stephen King’s book On Writing (Scribner, New York, 2000)

  • “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible… Stories pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow… Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”

Stephen King is, of course, Stephen King, but I’m calling shenanigans on that one, dude…



  1. Emotional Resonance (the B-Plot)

Readers connect most strongly to emotion, which arises naturally out of the character’s interaction with and reaction to their setting and problem.

There must be a core of strong and genuine feelings at the heart of every story.  Without it, the narrative is just a travelogue.

Good fiction works on the emotional level first and foremost.  Badly written fiction can succeed because of emotional appeal.  Brilliantly wrought prose can fail because of a lack of emotion.




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?