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…]