By Andrea Merrell
We’ve heard it before … story trumps plot. True or false? Arguments prevail on both sides of the issue.
There are many formulaic elements of fiction: plot, conflict, character development, POV, dialogue … the list goes on. But what about the storytelling itself. Where does it factor in?
The truth is if the storytelling is poor, the manuscript will ultimately wind up in the editorial graveyard.
According to Phillip Martin, “It might be best to say that story is essential and elemental, while plot is constructed and can be somewhat artificial. Both are good and enjoyable when done well. But story is closer to the heart—closer to why we value stories and storytellers.”
In a recent blog post, Martin gives us three key elements for a good story:
1. Something curiously odd at the start.
2. Selective and delightful details to draw out the tale through the middle.
3. An ending that makes it clear why this story was worth telling.
Here are Martin’s brief descriptions of each element taken from that blog post: (See details below for more information.)**
Odd or quirky, it turns out, is naturally interesting. We are intrigued by something peculiar. We want to know more about it.
A story is by definition eccentric; it is about something different from the norm. If you want to get published, something odd should appear in the first pages of a manuscript to catch the attention of an agent or editor. It could be an odd image, a peculiar voice, a curious incident. Unless your story offers a quirky hook, it will quickly be tossed aside.
If you are going to be eccentric, why wait to reveal it? A fisherman doesn’t save his bait ‘til he sees a fish. He baits the hook before he drops a line in the water.
Why do people read fiction? In many ways, readers want to experience in a story what they experience in eating delicious food. Joy in eating comes from a craving not for nutrition but for delightful tastes. Eating is not about the outline of a recipe; it’s about the pleasure of tasting what appears on the plate.
The same is true of literary creativity. The details you put on each page of your manuscript are the spices that make the words tingle on the tongue of the mind. The good story is full of distinctive, flavorful details. The problem is that beginning authors often overlook the need to create delightfully rich, savory details in favor of addressing the needs of the plot. In other words, they organize the menu and serve the food but forget to spice it properly.
One good way to develop details is to use more senses. Another way to develop rich details is to build a strong sense of place. Too many beginning writers set their story in a place that can only be called generic, with few concrete details, and those provided tend to be stereotypical. Writing rich in specificity is a major element that literary agents or acquisitions editors look for.
The satisfying surprise at the end
Does your ending satisfy the reader with surprises? As writer Carol Bly noted: “An essential difference between experienced and beginning writers is the amount of surprise they give us.”
If you want to achieve both satisfaction and surprise at the end, a good place to start is to identify the main characters’ desires. A good story will reveal something about important human needs: love, understanding, friendship, following a path of rightness in the world.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “[Stories are a] series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.” That “something else,” said Lewis, is the “real theme.” Plot’s purpose, he suggested, is to catch the theme, like a bird in the net, if only for a few moments in the story. “The bird has escaped us. But at least it was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage.”
The Heart of the Story
The three aspects of story I’ve discussed here are not the only ones needed for good fiction. A story needs other things too, including a functional plot. But in my experience, a story will sink or swim based on the appeal of these three elements: intriguing eccentricity to draw us in, delightful details to make us enjoy the middle course of the story, and a satisfying conclusion to wrap it up well.
Consider Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not the plot, it’s his storytelling skill that has made these works so beloved over the ages. He is master of the play of words, the frolic of fancy, the comic interludes, and many other techniques that beguile the heavy gait of plot. As poet Howard Nemerov noted, the clever bard “tells the same stories over and over in so many guises that it takes a long time before you notice.”
If you do it correctly, you will attract, delight, and amaze your readers. A good story will shed new light on the human condition. So, I recommend that you focus your novel-writing process on story, not on plot. If you do it well, story will be always at the core of your strongest writing.
Or, as I’ve said elsewhere: story rules, plot drools.
**For more information on Philip Martin or to read the complete article, visit: https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/why-story-trumps-plot/
(Photos courtesy of Blogpiks.com and Stuart Miles.)