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PLOT & STORY

Posted Friday, May 20, 2011, at 10:32 AM

Even though I call your book, article, essay - whatever - your "story," there's more to it than that. "Story" actually refers to the emotional part of what you're writing. "Plot" is the physical part. If Timmy falls down the well and Lassie goes for help, that's a Plot. If Timmy falls down the well and Lassie, for love of her boy, goes for help, that's Plot and Story.

The Plot is the outline of your book, the structure; it defines what happens. Story is the heart of your book; it's what keeps the readers emotionally invested in the characters and makes them want to keep reading.

We've all read books where there's a lot of action. The hero is involved in shoot-outs, car chases, daring rescues. At the end of it, however, we set the book down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. There was something missing - but what was it? What was missing, most likely, was enough of a Story, the emotional aspect that makes the reader care what happens to the characters.

Then there's the book that's all heartbreak, angst, emotion. But nothing else much happens, because there's not a strong enough plot. Without the skeleton of a Plot to hold your creature up, it's all muscle and soft tissue; pretty to look at, perhaps, but unable to really go anywhere.

A good book should have equal parts (or close to it) Plot and Story, with one leading naturally to the other. Let's look at "Gone with the Wind" again. This is a very lightweight interpretation of a particular scene, but I think you'll get the idea.

Plot: Scarlett, a recent widow, helps out at the Confederate Ball, a fund raising event to support the war.

Story: She sulks, resentful of the fact that her widow status prevents her from joining in the fun.

Plot: Against all protocol, Rhett Butler bids on Scarlett for a dance.

Story: Despite the disapproval of the other ladies, she happily accepts.

Plot: As she takes to the dance floor, Scarlett, in her black widow's weeds, stands out from the other young ladies in their brightly colored ball gowns.

Story: Knowing she has incurred the wrath of nearly everyone there, Scarlett nonetheless joyfully bounces around on the dance floor with Rhett.

Put another way: Plot is what happens; Story is how your characters feel about it.

"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it." William Styron


Comments
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Unfortunately, publishers are so much busier now than they were a mere 20 years ago, with many more submissions being sent their way, that they don't, for the most part, take the time to give specific reasons for rejecting a book proposal.

Most send out form rejection slips that start something like this:

Dear Author, (no personalization)

Thank you for your recent submission. We read it with interest, however, it's not quite right for our publishing company...

And so on. It's not that they're heartless; they're simply overwhelmed by the huge number of submissions they receive.

-- Posted by JTennant on Thu, May 26, 2011, at 12:01 PM

For the past 2 years I've been sending my book out and getting rejection slips that say nothing, but now this blog has helped me see what's wrong with my book. All plot and not enough story.

Why don't publishers tell me this when they reject my novel? It would have been a huge help to me if they would just take a couple of minutes to tell me what was wrong with my book, instead of just saying no thanks.

-- Posted by farmergirl.sp on Thu, May 26, 2011, at 6:04 AM

Interesting blog, and it explains quite a lot about my own reading preferences. I have an interest in history--but find historical fiction, accurately set in place and time, to be much more enjoyable than the history books I once struggled to comprehend. Now, having read the "story" in a piece of fiction, I am likely to dig around a bit in reference material. That would most likely not have worked well in history class, but it works for me now.

-- Posted by Betty Taylor on Sun, May 22, 2011, at 12:30 AM


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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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