Let’s Talk About Plot

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.

Tweet: Let’s talk about plot : 4 questions I ask when I’m editing.

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.”

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  1. Jenny says:

    So well-said, Jamie!!! Thank you. :)

  2. April Line says:

    Well said, amiga! Nice job!

  3. Excellent article, Jamie… such short questions (those four) but boy can they be illusive sometimes! Would love to hear your take on what the elements of a “story-worthy” problem are, and your opinion about making a subplot out of backstory. Meanwhile, I will enjoy going through your older posts, as I have just discovered your wonderful blog. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experience this way!

    • Jamie says:

      Ooooo, good ideas! I will put those suggestions on my list of things to write about. Because as you may have already guessed, I DO have some opinions. :) I’m thrilled to have a new reader! As you’ll see, I write about books and authors, writing and editing, words and language, and the publishing industry in general. Nice and (ahem) broad!

  4. Amy Parker says:

    Perfectly succinct description and checklist. I forwarded along to an author friend (who already does this, but STILL :).

  5. Marti Pieper says:

    Simple and profound. I can think of a few movie producers who should read (okay, should have read) this, too. Sharing!

  6. Jessica says:

    Hi, i wanted to quote you on a project for creative writing. I don’t have enough info here to cite you though. could you provide me with whatever information you have?

    • Jamie says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “provide me with whatever information you have.” I wrote this based on my experience, so there was no research involved. If you have more questions, though, click on “Go to Jamie Chavez” above, and contact me through my website.