I’ve recently worked on a couple manuscripts that had no plot. No, really. In each case there was a whole collection of things that happened to the protagonist, but no true story arc. This made it hard for me to care about the characters; it made it hard for me to keep reading.
Well, I did, of course. Because I kept hoping … but no.
Here’s what my fave dictionary says about plot: “the plan or pattern of events or the main story of a literary work (as a novel, play, short story, or poem) comprising the gradual unfolding of a causally connected series of motivated incidents : narrative structure.” Note that bit about causal connection of motivated incidents.
Don’t forget, you’re telling a story. It needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It’s a pretty simple formula: you take an interesting character, give him or her a stable milieu (backstory), and then introduce a problem—which the character may or may not have known existed. This problem, or conflict, is revealed by means of the “inciting incident.” In other words, something happens, and—boom!—nothing is ever the same. During the course of the novel, your protagonist struggles to restore stability to his/her world, and by the end of the story a new order has been established, reflecting the change the character has undergone.
You’ll hear this described in various ways: the story arc, as I’ve mentioned, or the character’s journey (usually there will be an inner journey and an outer journey). The character experiences conflict, or the story-worthy problem. And those causally connected incidents—the plot—build to a climax. (In the first Harry Potter book, Harry “discovers he is a wizard, makes close friends and a few enemies at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and with the help of his friends thwarts an attempted comeback by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents when Harry was one year old,” according to Wikipedia. It’s that confrontation and thwarting that comprise the climax.)
So when I read a manuscript for a developmental edit, the first questions I ask myself are:
- Who is the protagonist?
- What is the inciting incident?
- What is the story-worthy problem?
- What is the subplot?
These questions should be easy to answer. If I have trouble answering them, I ask the author. In the stories with no actual plot, the author’s answer invariably just doesn’t jive with the action that takes place in the manuscript—which then confirms my concern.
Remember, everything that happens in the novel is supposed to be leading us forward on a path to the denouement. So when you’re working on your novel, make sure you know the answer to the four questions above … and then decide if the story as it is now supports that. Because a plotless story is not going to get you published, dear one.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”