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Monday, April 7, 2014


If not, how do writers "arrive" at a plot?

As a writing teacher I have had many students ask about PLOT and how to develop it. They wanted to create a plot and then plug in whatever characters might move through the episodes of their stories.

In the beginning, I didn’t know how to turn that notion around, although I sensed that starting with PLOT was not the answer.  As I analyzed the stories that touched me most profoundly -- the novels and stories that were keepers, I discovered that plot was not the primary tool used.......Unfortunately, I now believe some writers think that if they can just get hold of the right kind of plot – or set up a series of actions/events that will make their story exciting -- that the work involved in developing a good story might also come easily.

I sincerely believe this is a mistake.  I also believe that even if there was such a thing as the most PERFECT plot -- it would NOT make the act of writing any easier at all!

In the quest to understand plot, I have picked up a number of books over the years. In 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them), Ronald Tobias asks that very question: “How may plots are there?” He then lists a number of possible answers, including: Thousands or maybe millions? Sixty-nine? Thirty-six? OR Two, period?

I had to laugh the first time I read that….I knew that Aristotle had ascribed to the two basic plot theory, but the other responses were new to me. I learned that Rudyard Kipling ascribed to the idea of sixty-nine plots (WHY 69??), and Carlo Gozzi (who?) felt there were thirty six (Okay….).

Honestly, I don’t know if there IS an absolute answer to the question of plots, but I do recognize that in life, there are universal questions that seem to come up every day, no matter where we live or who we are. These are the deep, deep questions that each of us has to answer for ourselves about our life. I now see those deeper questions as being the force or energy behind any great story.

Plot, then, seems to grow out of those questions, and those are the same questions that our characters must confront and resolve. So for me, the POWER in story comes out of character (NOT plot); that is, Plot IS Character.  OR – another way to say it is that “character + conflict = plot”.

So does that mean there are two or thirty-six or sixty-nine or thousands of plots out there? I’m still not sure. There is an unlimited number of possible complications and conflicts, but how many ways can a character resolve his/her conflict? Interesting question, right?

There is, of course, tragedy. There is also comedy and adventure, etc., but those are actually genres – which do, in fact, carry certain plot elements that become part of a reader’s expectation. They are the patterns that most writers instinctively or deliberately follow.  

Writers recognize that readers expect a number of predictable elements to be present when they pick up their preferred genre. Break those unwritten “rules” and you may have some very frustrated readers. For instance, in a romance, a reader generally expects a “happy ever after” ending; if not entirely “happy,” the ending must at least be satisfying – or else that story/novel may end up thrown against the wall.

Of course, readers of “literary” fiction are often looking for those less predictable elements – even the less than satisfactory ending. I always found it amusing when my students would tell me that literary fiction was just boring fiction and that’s what made it literary

What matters most to a writer should be that he/she understand the elements of a particular genre (if a commercial genre is the goal), and along with that the patterns that lend themselves to the selected genre. However, that does not mean a writer can lean on those prescribed elements and forsake deep character and the questions that arise from a character’s internal struggle. No matter how simple a plotline a writer may employ, it is character that makes a story unforgettable.

So how do we arrive at those deep character questions?

We all face similar issues in life and great stories reflect those issues, eg: What complex choices can we then set up as obstacles that our hero or heroine must face and overcome? What dilemmas can we forge, which force our readers to recognize that there are no easy solutions in life, that sometimes doing the right thing actually means doing the “wrong” thing? Or what sacrifices will our protagonists have to make in order to get or have or achieve their goals? What losses are required in order to “win?”

This kind of thinking, this kind of character development is, in my opinion, what takes an average story into the better and best category of story. So, the challenge should be to take our characters on a journey that causes our readers to cheer or cry or scream!

As in the words of Willa Cather, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

These are the kinds of dilemmas I played with when creating the characters that people my newly re-released WILLA Award-winning novel, ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS from Prairie Rose Publications. It’s more than just a romance. It’s the story of a man, a woman, and a people – all pitted against the terrifying and historical drama of the little-known Baker’s Massacre of the Blackfeet in 1870. Questions of loyalty, sacrifice, love, and forgiveness are the questions each of the characters must answer for themselves.

In appreciation and gratitude, I’d like to offer TWO free downloads of ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS! Leave a comment and I’ll enter your name into a drawing. 
TWO winners will be selected on WEDNESDAY of this week!


  1. Gail, this is a great post. I think many readers and writers are unaware of what goes into stories, be they good or bad. Thank you for trying the answer the age old question of plot. You did a great job. Doris

    1. Thank you! I think teaching for so many years before and while writing professionally was a double blessing. It helped me in my teaching to be a writer and it helped me as a writer to have taught and studied what writing entails.....I loved teaching writing in more of an "unorthodox" way - that is, looking at story as a writer vs. as an academic. I think students appreciated it, too....

  2. Gail, sorry so late getting here--my dog had some stuff done at the vet's today and he had to have anesthesia, so I've been taking care of him today. Anyhow, I wanted to say, I really love this post and will be saving it for future reference. You did a great job of talking about plotting. Personally, I think of a scene--not the entire plot--and the characters in that scene. Then, I build the plot around it.

    That's a great quote by Willa Cather. I've been thinking about that ever since I read it on your post here earlier today!


    1. Thank you....this is a subject I've spent a lot of time on with my students over the years.....and it has impacted my approach to story writing in general. I hope I can continue to understand the importance of character -- I think it is key to every great story! P.S. I hope your dog is okay!!! :-) Oh, and the Willa Cather quote is one I have loved for a long time!

  3. What an interesting post. It seems plot building is really an art and very time consuming.

    1. Hi Julie - Actually I am finding that when you start with character, the plot builds as a result of what you discover in and around that character and his/her life/issues/backstory/conflict, etc!!! It has saved me time -- because the story becomes an outgrowth -- an organic thing! Another way to think about it is that it feels like a mystery that unravels itself! :-)

  4. Gail, I really like your statement, "So, the challenge should be to take our characters on a journey that causes our readers to cheer or cry or scream!"

    When I read a story with a weak plot, I'll still stick with it to the end as long as the author makes me care about the characters (cheer, cry, scream). It can't be stressed enough how critical it is for the author to get the reader to invest emotionally into the characters.

    1. I totally agree, Kaye! I simply find myself yawning when a story drags and there is little to cheer about or worry over :-) I love PEOPLE'S stories! When I was a kid, I loved reading biographies and I haven't changed. I want to understand people and what makes them make the choices they do -- whether in fiction or nonfiction!

  5. OKAY - the drawing is over! I'd like to announce that Kaye Spencer and Renaissance Women have each won a download of ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, the WILLA Literary Award Winning novel that PRP re-released in December! Thank you, Ladies, for stopping by.....hope you enjoy the story and also hope you stop by down the road.....Congratulations. Connect with me for the download information! Cheers ---