Plot: The Spine of the Story

What is plot? What is story? To have a story, you need several basic elements—a clear storyline, characters, and a universe for the story. If you’re missing one of these, you’re going to encounter Writer’s Block. Sometimes you can have a great idea for unique aspect of a world for a story, but you lack characters and storyline. Or you can have epic characters but no world to put them in or storyline. Sometimes you can have a storyline but no sure world or characters for it, although usually with storylines, the characters and world will develop automatically.

Sometimes writers ask me to help them brainstorm certain aspects of their story, so I always ask, “What is your story about?” And sometimes I get a response like this, “Well, there’s this other realm—like another dimension—and only certain people can pass between the two dimensions, but they can drag ordinary people with them to the other dimension. When this happens, normal people gain superpowers, but they lose them when they come back to our own dimension. They usually lose their minds and go mad after an encounter like that. They know they had superpowers, but now they don’t, and no one believes them.”

I wait, but when they don’t continue, I press on, “Okay, but what’s your story about?”

They look at me puzzled. “It’s about those dimensions.”

I lift my hand to stop them from repeating themselves, and I look them straight in the eyes. “That is the universe of the story. That is the setting, the background. That is not the story itself. Who are the main characters? Who is the story about?”

This is when most writers pause then frown. “I…I don’t know.” And to be honest, I can’t really help you when you don’t know the answer to this. This is a form of Writer’s Block, and it is something every writer—even I—encounters.

So, what is plot? Strip away the universe of the story, the world, the extraordinaries of the story, the uniqueness of it, all the color and fluff and all the awesomeness of the story, and what is left? When you strip it down to its bare bones, what remains? What is the soul of the story? Who remains?

For instance, my medieval fantasy story, which I hope to publish next year or so, deals with magic and technology, crosses genres of fantasy and science fiction, has a huge cast of characters (I want to say around seventy-five characters prior to editing), multiple interweaving subplots, political intrigue, intense battle and fights, and emotional distress and heartbreak. However, at the core, the story is about one very powerful man who has always done his best to use his power for good, but he is accused of a crime he claims he did not do, yet no one believes him. They think him a lying, two-faced monster. Soon he realizes in order to clear his name, he must become the very man they think him to be, but will he lose himself and remain that man?

That is the main conflict of the story. That plot can be applied to any genre and any era and be retold into a new story. That is the beauty of plot. It is said there are 20 master plots, but plot relies on conflict, and there are only four kinds of conflict, ‘man against man’ (film: Gladiator, 2000), ‘man against society’ (film: In Time, 2011), ‘man against nature’ (film: Twister, 1996), and ‘man against self’ (TV Show: Perception, 2012). The difference between plot and conflict is, multiple conflicts form a plot. You can twist it any which way you want. In my fantasy story, the conflicts were mainly ‘man against man’ and ‘man against self’.

So, what do you do if your story is a good idea but has no plot? You need to know there is no magic formula. However, there are a few things you can do. First, recognize the problem and acknowledge it then think about it. Brainstorm with people who understand and encourage your writing. Watch films, TV shows, YouTube videos, read books and fan fiction, listen to music—the seed for the story might be anywhere.

Once you find it, there is no stopping you. Stories are funny like that. You pick up a seed, and suddenly it blossoms in full bloom right in your hand, and you have to quickly cast it to the ground because it’s very swiftly becoming a full tree! Its roots dig deep into the ground. Its trunk grows thicker and taller than you. Its branches reach out above your head in complicated patterns with leaves kaleidoscoping the sky—much like the interwoven subplots and paths of the characters.

But sometimes—despite everything you put into it—it doesn’t flourish. Is it because it’s not a good idea? No. It’s because it’s not time for that story to be written. Where you are in your life isn’t the right time for that story to be written. It’s also not the right time for others to read it—the world isn’t ready for it yet. So, pocket it away for the time being. Don’t forget it. Don’t lose hope over it.

“So I don’t have a plot—can’t get one regardless how much I think about it, what am I supposed to write? I have no idea!” Thus the terrible clutches of Writer’s Block. Yes, you can try to force your way through the story you have, but usually that results with pent up frustration, and editing is even more of a dread.

So what do you do in such a situation—especially if you want to write daily? Well, simple—write. “Write what?” Whatever comes to your mind. It could be a scene here, a conversation, a journal entry, co-writing with someone, a blog post, plotting out ideas—something, anything to keep you in the habit of writing.

How long will this spell go on? It varies—can be a few days, weeks, months, even a year or so. Does that mean you fail as a writer? No—especially if regardless of all this, you continue to write, continue to look for the story, continue to strengthen your understanding of the craft and sharpen your skill. When the story comes, you’ll be ready for it. You’ll hit the ground running without hesitation. You won’t lack confidence because you know you’ve maintained your ability. It’s like training for the Olympics.

Don’t think of it so much as a block but rather an opportunity to sharpen specific areas of your writing. You can focus on mastering description without being bogged down with a storyline. You can perfect the art of dialogue without worry of plot points. You can experiment with specific characters in any situation because they’re not tied to a specific story. You can strengthen your ability to write certain kinds of characters like the antagonist and how to make them relatable.

If it makes you feel any better, at this very moment I’m struggling with this myself. In one hand, I have a story with much potential and unique ideas but no characters or plot. In the other hand, I have these three characters but no story for them. I’ve tried to blend them together, but still lack the plot. So, what do I do in the meanwhile? Well, I make myself write at least a thousand words a day. I’m co-writing and writing blog posts like these, and I’m also writing random scenes experimenting with those characters I mentioned—never know when they’re reveal their story to me.

So if you’re struggling with this, don’t feel like you’re a failure as a writer or that you’ll never be able to write a worthwhile story. Sometimes the story will come to you in a flow that you just can’t stop, but if it were like that all the time, you literally would have no life, and you would be exhausted—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Other times the flow just ebbs, forcing you to slow down. It will pick up again, and you’ll forget the times you struggled with words.

Can a story have no plot? Of course, but the plot gives structure and purpose to the story. Having a story without plot is like having a body without a skeleton. Sure, you might have hands, legs, and something the resembles a head, and you can dress it up with fancy clothes, but in the end, it can’t stand on its own. A story with plot has bones, has a spine and the confidence to carry itself.

So write daily—something, anything. Be patient. And when you do write, determine the plot and the reason for your story.

Our next several posts will discuss outlines—how to craft an outline, when to use one, when not to use one, and when to step off the outline. See you then!