Plot vs Story

I just watched this very interesting clip of an interview with Martin Scorsese, in which he talks about the distinction between story and plot. (Go ahead and watch it; it’s only 2 minutes).

Essentially he defines plot as the bare bones of what happens in a movie–the basic outline.  Story involves the characters, the cinematography choices, the casting choices and the emotions portrayed by the actors on the screen.  And he concludes by saying that he finds story more compelling than plot, that the movies he’s drawn back to are those with the best stories.

Scorsese is of course talking about film, but it struck me as I was watching that the same can easily be applied to novels.  I realize, of course, that it’s not a completely clear-cut either/or kind of a question.  Plot and story ideally inform and assist each other, and just as plot without story is lifeless and dry, you can have the best story elements in the world and still wind up with a complete yawn-fest of a novel unless you have a compelling plot to drive them.  But in general, yes, I do agree with what Scorsese says: it’s the story elements of books (and films) that stay with me the longest and draw me back again and again.

I think it’s a misconception many first-time or aspiring writers have–I know I had it myself, to some degree: the idea that once you have a killer plot idea for your novel, you’re all set.  Don’t get me wrong, a killer plot idea is a great thing to have.  But every writer is different, and for myself, I actually discovered a few books into my career that trying to start my writing process by outlining the bare bones of a plot didn’t work for me at all.  I’m still a huge planner and I still love outlines.  But what I discovered was that in order to making outlining work for me, I needed to start with a fundamental understanding of my characters: identify their strengths and weaknesses, their deepest desires and goals.  Then from there, I come up with a plan for what their character arc is going to be: how do I want them to have grown or changed over the course of the novel?  At this stage, I map out several key emotional scenes that will take them from their emotional state at the beginning to where I want them to be at the end–and that’s the first glimmer of the plot, beginning to take shape.  Then once I have an emotional arc for all the characters that I’m happy with– then I can clearly see what my plot needs to be, what events need to happen in order to allow for that character growth.  Essentially, I imagine the story first, and then rely on that to give me the plot.

A few ideas for helping you to identify possible key and compelling plot points if you’re the ‘story first’ kind of a writer like me: [Read more…]


Marketing Mash-up

I’m in the throes this week of at long last putting the final, finishing touches on The Impossible Book (insert huge, slightly crazy-eyed sigh of relief here) so my post this month is a bit of a mash-up.  Part news bulletin, part platform/marketing advice, part philosophical reflection.  Have I scared everyone off yet?  Well, if not (and I really don’t hold it against you if so!) a little background:

I think I’ve mentioned before on other WU posts that the relentless cries of Platform! Platform! Platform! in today’s publishing world more or less make me break out in a cold sweat.  I am  totally in sympathy with everything our own Robin LeFevers says about introverted writers on her Shrinking Violets blog.  Of course, part of my platform reluctance is just a simple time thing.  My kids are little (5 and 2) and I homeschool them.  I just plain do not have the time to both write books I’m proud of and devote huge (or even small to medium size) chunks of my workday to platform-building.  And (probably like most WU readers/authors here) when it comes to a choice between marketing and craft, I choose craft every time.  I just have to.

But in part it is just about me.  Jane Friedman  had a great post here awhile back about how any marketing/platform efforts have to be tailored to fit the individual, otherwise they won’t be authentic.  What is right for one author simply won’t work for another.   And for me . . . I blog here (which I love!) and I have my own website and (really infrequently updated) blog, but apart from that, I just hadn’t yet hit on any marketing strategies that felt both unique and right to me.

However–some of you may remember that about 6 months ago I went the indie-publishing route for my urban fantasy book Demon Hunter and Baby.  Which means, of course, that I’m totally responsible for any marketing efforts on its behalf.  Now, I’m not generally speaking a huge fan of love triangles, but one just sort of wrote itself into this book.  A particular character stepped up and suddenly my heroine–whom I’d thought was absolutely certain to end up with the love interest I’d picked out for her–was torn between two love interests.  And so was I.  I was starting to think about writing the next book in the series (and thank you so much to anyone who bought a copy of book 1 and made it a viable option to write book 2 in the series!) and trying to sketch out where the series was going and which of  the two men Aisling, my heroine, was ultimately going to choose.  I didn’t actually reach a conclusion (still haven’t), but one night while going to bed I looked at my husband and said, “You know what would be fun?  A survey on my website where readers could cast their votes about who THEY think Aisling should end up with.” [Read more…]


Lessons Learned from Wrangling with the Impossible Book

I have spent the last seven months or so wrangling with The Impossible Book.   Never mind the working title, that’s what I’ve begun to call it in my head.  Now, I’ve published 8 books at this point, so I do know the universal truth about book writing: it is freaking hard work.  No author–at least no one I know–shrugs and says, Oh yeah, easy-peasy.  when asked about their work in progress.  In fact, if you’re writing a book now, just go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for being brave enough to tackle the challenge.  Because every book is a challenge.  Every book I write is going to present those moments when I realize that the plot’s timeline needs to be restructured, or a whole chapter needs to be ripped out, or that I need to dig deeper into the hero’s emotional journey.

 But this book–Gah!  It started off as almost a lark–an idea that popped into my head and I thought, Oh, that will be a quick, fun book to write.

Ha.  Ha Ha Ha.  Has anyone out there seen the movie Austen Powers?  You know that scene where he’s trying to kill the evil spy woman who just won’t die no matter what he does to her?  And finally they fall out of an upper-story window together and he has his hands around the woman’s neck saying, WHY. WON’T. YOU. DIE?   I was just telling my husband that that is how I have begun to feel about this book: WHY WON’T YOU LET ME TYPE ‘THE END’?  I have a file of everything I’ve deleted from this book that is now approximately twice as long as the book itself.  And the book is over 100K long!  I’ve ripped out huge chunks of plot threads, changed the voice, the setting, the characters . . . and not just once for any of those.

Why has this book been so hard?  I have no idea.  Seriously.  Seven months into the process and the best I can come up with is ‘some books are just like that’.  Anyone who has thoughts on why some books are just like that, sound off in the comments and let me know!  However, what I have discovered is that the past seven months of book-wrangling have pushed me towards some valuable lessons, which I’d like to share here today.  Because focusing on the positive enables me to suppress the eye-twitch I’ve also developed over the last seven months.  No, just kidding.  Mostly.  I really am grateful for the whole experience.  But in the hopes that maybe I can help you shorten your own impossible-book-wrangle, I will tell you what I’ve learned. [Read more…]



 There’s a lot of talk in the writing/publishing world about contracts.  Author/Agent contracts, publisher’s contracts, advances, foreign rights, non-exclusivity clauses.  But those aren’t actually the kind of contracts I wanted to talk about today.  I want to talk about the most basic contract of all in the writing business–and it’s not one you sign in triplicate after getting a lawyer’s advice.  It’s the fundamental, unwritten and unspoken contract between you as an author and your readers.

I have pages and pages of favorite quotes on writing.  But my favorite of all, the one I come back to time and again when I struggle or find myself slogging to put words on the page is this one from Donna Tartt:  “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”

That, for me, perfectly sums up the essence of the unspoken contract between author and reader.  Readers are trusting you to entertain them to the best of your ability.  And I think it’s our job as authors to work hard to never violate that trust.  So what does that mean?

In writing this post, I was struggling to answer that very question.  Because never violating a reader’s trust doesn’t mean never challenging your readers or taking your story in a direction that surprises them.  What I finally decided is that it means that as an author you never make the reader promises–either overt or implied–that you don’t fulfill.  If you’re writing a category romance novel, your readers–99.9% of them, anyway–are going to expect a happy ending.  They’re going to feel betrayed if you don’t give them one.  In that case, just the selection of genre in itself is in a way a strong promise to the readers.

But what about in grayer, less clearly-defined areas?  I think in essence fulfilling your part of the author/reader contract means that the storytelling choices you make should be for strong, solidly-grounded reasons.  You never make the reader feel as though the rug has been yanked out from under their feet for no good purpose.  Basically, at no point should your story make the reader want to scream, Are you freaking kidding me?? [Read more…]


What Not To Do or What I’ve Learned from Watching Season 4 of Castle

            Anyone else out there a fan of ABC’s hit crime drama Castle?  Anyone else out there totally frustrated by the direction the show has taken in the most recent episodes?  I’ve been watching the show since it first started airing–it was a show about an author!  Starring Nathan Fillion, whom I seriously would watch in anything!–and have always both really enjoyed it and honestly admired it as an example of truly good, skilled storytelling.  But lately?  Lately it’s started to feel to me like some bizarre storytelling version of that reality show ‘What Not to Wear.’

            Except that this version would be titled, “How to dodge good storytelling choices as though they were live hand grenades.”

So, I’ve (lucky you) decided to channel my frustrations into my this month’s Writer Unboxed post!  But not just because of my own personal annoyance–I honestly think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from storytelling gone wrong.

And two quick things before I begin.  First, I’ll try to keep things general for those who don’t watch the show.  And second, this is all in a spirit of friendly, non-malicious constructive criticism, okay?  I don’t usually–well, actually ever–criticize anyone else’s stories in a public space.  Too much negative energy in the world already, you know?  I’m breaking that rule today because I’m pretty sure the Castle writers and producers aren’t reading this post right now and crying into their bowls of breakfast cereal because I’m not thrilled with the direction the show has taken.  But just to be clear–a) This is just my opinion.  And this obviously isn’t my story, it belongs to the writers and producers, and ultimately they have every right–a duty, even–to be true to whatever story they feel they need to tell. And b) Pretty sure the show’s stars Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, et al aren’t weeping into their cereal, either–but this is in no way a criticism of their performances, the whole cast and crew of the show is outstandingly talented at what they do.

Okay.  So some quick background–at its heart, the show revolves around the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension between the title character, Richard Castle, and the NYPD detective he shadows and partners, Kate Beckett.  They’ve managed to keep that romantic tension fresh and believable and compelling through 4 seasons.  But in the last 3 episodes, it’s suddenly turned into something else entirely–and it’s these most recent episodes I’d like to use to distill my list of ‘don’ts’ in terms of storytelling techniques.

1.  If you’re going to create conflict between characters, make it REAL conflict.  Now, I’m not objecting to keeping romantic leads from getting together too soon.  At all.  By all means, throw obstacles in their path, make them suffer, make them EARN that happily-ever-after ending.  But for goodness sake, make them face real conflicts, real, tough-to-conquer challenges that force them to examine who they are as characters and what they’re willing to change and sacrifice in the name of love.  One of my absolute pet peeves whether in watching stories or reading them is a long-lasting estrangement between characters that could be solved with nothing more than the two characters sitting down and having a single adult conversation with each other–because they do actually love each other and are on the same side, they’ve just each misunderstood something about the other’s feelings or motives.  Basing conflict on clearly manufactured false assumptions  that real people would never make for any lasting amount of time is not real conflict!  It’s just cheap storytelling, in my opinion.  Which leads me to . . .  [Read more…]