When I ask a writer, “What’s your story about?” and it is followed up with, “Well, first this happens, then this happens, then this other thing happens,” I know there’s a problem.
Beginning writers tend to think of plot as a series of events, sort of like beads on a string. They just line up in a certain order according to the way the writer thinks they should line up. Here-in lies the problem. The plot is what determines the emotional core of the story. Without a strong core, it doesn’t matter how interesting your characters are, how outlandish the events, or how great your dialog is written. Plot is the skeletal frame that requires attention to detail and understanding.
If you break it down, plot is the reality that is happening for your characters. It’s their day-to-day life. Now, think in terms of your own life. It isn’t just a series of events that are strung together – it is a series of choices and their consequences: a cause-and-effect relationship that makes up what happens throughout your day.
For example: I wake up in the morning and I choose to lay in bed an extra 15 minutes. As a result, I don’t have time after my shower to blow-dry my hair. This means I have to pull my hair up, still wet, into a bun. Then, when I go outside, my wet hair causes me to be chilled. That chill lasts all day, so I am uncomfortable all day, and I wind up feeling grouchy because I can’t get warm. By the end of the day, I am more tired than usual because I have been tensing my muscles to stay warm. Because I’m too tired to fix dinner, I wind up ordering pizza yet again, which costs me money that I don’t want to spend, and results in added calories to my diet that I really don’t need.
Characters work the same way. Each choice they make leads to a new consequence, which leads to another set of choices, and so on. The mistake many new writers make is that events seem to happen spontaneously and without real connection to the character. Things happen TO the character, not because the character said or did anything. The character then reacts, and if the author is not careful, the plot becomes a series of “acts of God” followed by “character reactions” that is both lacking credibility and difficult for the reader to follow.
The difficulty with plot is that many writers want to force their characters into doing things that are contrary to the character’s personality for the sake of promoting a story line. The writer is then forced to add dialog or narration that says something like “I don’t know why I did that,” or “It was so out of character for him/her.”
Without a well-developed plot, many writers also have to rely on the chronic “flashback” sequence to fill in gaps or help move the story along. These constant trips to the past become a distraction to the reader, and typically are evidence that the writer doesn’t understand the character or the story well enough him or herself. True – the occasional flashback serves a valid purpose, but when the writer is including, say, two or three a chapter, it’s usually a sign that he or she is searching for ways to explain the character more fully because he or she doesn’t get the character, or he or she is afraid that the reader doesn’t get the character.
A well-developed plot comes from understanding the main character thoroughly, from understanding that character’s circumstances, and from understanding the cause-and-effect relationship that governs life for all of us – real or imaginary.
Louis Sacher demonstrates a masterful understanding of this in his book “Holes” as does M.T. Anderson in his book “Feed.” Alison McGhee does the same in her book “Rainlight” and also her book “Was it Beautiful.” There is an unfortunately large number of books I site that are examples of not understanding plot, but why recommend bad reading to you?
By understanding this causal relationship, writers can create a more believable world for the reader to become a part of. Not understanding it is a weakness that far too many wanna-be’s believe they can let slide.