What’s a Plot?

For all of us, eventually, it’s where we go after ‘the end’ but that’s not the plot I want to talk about here.

Plot in a story is about the events that lead from one to the next until ‘the end’ for the snippet of this [main] character’s life.

If the events don’t lead from one — which would be the cause — to the effect, it’s not meaningful. For story, everything must be meaningful. If it’s done well, it’s also resonant (that’s the bell ringing off in the distance, the sound you know so well and what it means, both to you and the story).

Plot isn’t structure. However, if the plot isn’t structured, it may as well be a straight line from A to B and how interesting would that be? No trees, no forks in the road, no choices or options, no decisions to be made, no wandering off the beaten path.

Structure works with plot to ensure the story has these interesting little elements. Okay, they’re big moments, the whole reason the story is told in this genre, with this plot archetype (oh, an archetype for plot?), with these characters in this setting and timeline.

Structure isn’t the signposts, although that’s where it is most easily visible. Structure is the point where plot makes a decision based on a previous event. The cause and effect flow-on means a decision must be made, an action taken, to continue on the journey.

Plot and structure go together to ensure the journey has a purpose.

That’s all.

The story itself is like the lives of each of us — we choose, and having chosen, walk the path. At least until the consequences of that choice show their signage and we make another choice.

Until the end.

What it all means is that no two writers will write the same story even if they have the same pattern/s, the same archetypes, the same end-state. We make the journey through our perspective, based on our history and knowledge, and our needs/desires.


We have archetypes for character. Lots of them. Everywhere. You see people using labels to identify themselves as one with an archetype. I’m an INFJ, I see (I don’t know what this means — okay, I do, but I don’t use these or Enneagrams, although I’ve seen them used for characterisation).

And we have plot archetypes. Heist, Family saga, Quest, Adventure, Rescue, Redemption, Revenge, Temptation, Greed (all the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues could be terms plot archetypes).

What the archetype patterns mean is the general shape of the thing. Like a pattern for a shirt. If I made it, the shirt would have sleeves of different colours, maybe mismatched buttons, and a collar with a tilt to the right. One front panel would not be the same as the other.

If you made a shirt from that pattern, it would not be the same as my shirt, but people would still recognise it as a shirt. It’s the pattern of the thing, not the thing itself. It’s your shirt, made by your hands, using your skills and rules.

The pattern isn’t inhibiting.

If you are afraid of the patterns for the hint of formula, I must point out the forms of poetry. Consider Haiku. The structure and pattern of the form is liberating to those who write within its folds. Some people are masters of the form, others are dabblers. I don’t even make it to dabbler stage, I just look on and sigh at the elegance of the form and what it creates in the observer.

So there you have it.

Plot is events that lead from a cause to a reaction and decision, thereby an effect. Cause and effect underlies all good stories, even if it’s as invisible as the sea-bed shape that makes waves on the shore.

What Plot is Not

Plot is not the plan, or the planning stage, or anything to do with writing down stuff before writing the story. Plot is the label for the events, rather than saying, repetitively, over and over and over: this happens, then because that happened, this happens, and then because that happened, this happens, etc., etc. Plot is an easier word to say that encompasses the story events as a whole, even if (when writing) we need to see each event as separate parts of the whole — they still need the purpose that leads the story forward, ever onward, until the story question is answered. (Story question? That’s for another post.)

The cause-effect paradigm goes by many names, some more useful than others. I like to use a term noted as Chain of Events to help me get past a difficult spot. It’s like a chain-link fence, rather than dominoes (dominoes is fine for a straight, single goal, chronological piece) because a chain link fence has many sections that all need to be held together to make the fence strong.

To make a story strong, each event must support and strengthen the overall story fence. If one piece fails or cracks, the fence loses its integrity. And so does a story. Leave something important out, and the story fails for the reader.

What do I mean? It’s the reaction part of the action/event that often seems to be missing. If this happens, why doesn’t the character acknowledge, or react, to it? That may be the most important question I ask as I do the first over-arching story edit. Every character must react as a real person would, or it isn’t believable (it’s not about genre, but the reader understanding the reactions and why they happen).

If this happens, how would this person see it, feel it, react to it? Why? Show how it does this, show how it causes them to take the next action that is the cause of the next effect.

Do not feed the horse through the window! Why? Because it will become a habit, an expectation. Don’t do it if it doesn’t have a purpose.

Now I’ll go back to first-drafting the story for NaNo … slowly.

15 thoughts on “What’s a Plot?

  1. What about endings? Do you love cliffhanger endings, or hate them? I was surprised to read how many people HATE them.

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    • Hate cliffhanger endings to stories. Love ’em (in small doses at the right time) at the end of scenes/chapters.
      A story is a character who struggles toward something, and if we don’t know what the something is, no ending will work. But also, if there is no point where [the reader] can say, ‘she got it’ or ‘she didn’t get it’ then they wonder why they fought to get to the point that is marked ‘the ending’. It means there’s no sense of satisfaction in the ending.
      In series, there are a lot of stories that end with a cliffhanger, but I prefer at least one big question answered, so I can then see how they achieve some part of their goal/arc. If I get no idea of what they’ve won, I don’t know if what they’re going on with the rest of the series in search of, or to complete the journey.
      I’m happy if they get a big thing done, and then realise it’s just the start of the problem. These endings work best for me, because it’s an end to this book, but also a reason to find the next book to find out how they dig out of the bigger problem.
      But all readers are different. And I suffer from endings that fail the reader in expectations and satisfaction, so I’m still learning. Always learning.

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      • I Love the cliffhanger ending, BUT ONLY if it’s an ending that will continue as part of the beginning of the next book in a series. But you’re right about how it’s still better with atleast some form of closure. Some sub plot getting wrapped up, or some mystery being revealed. Being one of the judges for a short story contest, it was interesting to discover how many people really do have trouble with endings. I had written a couple of lame endings too. They weren’t 100% atrocious. They had closure in them, and questions being answered, but they were just weak compared to the rest of the story. Readers would’ve most likely gotten the impression that they were lazily written. There’s tons of writing courses out there, about plots, The three act structure, and The five act structure, and stuff like that. Why isn’t there tons of courses about how to write good endings?

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      • But plot isn’t structure. Plot is basically the events, the things that happen, and structure is the order of these events, the where they hit the story and shape it for the reader (psychologically and logically).
        And that’s why people get endings wrong. If the structure doesn’t include the character’s story question in the beginning, there’s no way to find out (for the reader) if the character gets any satisfaction from their journey.
        Well, that’s what I think.

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