Give the Plot a Backseat: Basic Storytelling Elements Part 4

Welcome to my ten-part series where we’ll be going through the ten basics of storytelling as outlined in my guidebook The 10 Lost Elements of Storytelling – a book you can get for free by subscribing to my newsletter! In these posts, we’ll be going over the basics of these storytelling elements, but my guidebook is more detailed on some subjects and provides examples and resources. All you need to do is say “yes” to receiving a fun, inspirational, and educational newsletter once a month.

Coming off of my talk about characters last week, it’s now time to concern ourselves with plot. We’ve perfected our grammar. We’ve taken command of our writing style. We have carefully and thoughtfully constructed engaging characters that will drive our book.

And now – and only now – we can finally begin to think about plot. But first I issue a warning, and if you’ve stuck with me for a while now, you probably know the gist of what I’m about to say.

Deflate the ego of your plot. Put a pin in it, watch its importance diminish, and take a deep breath because this is good. Sit your plot in the backseat and let your characters drive.

“But-!” Okay yes, I know that your plot is amazing; why would you even set out to write a book if you didn’t believe in the story? But the plot is made for the characters, not the characters for the plot.

As I talked about last week, modern storytelling mostly has this backward, resulting in stories that are entertaining and flashy, but not very meaningful or memorable. Why are these two adjectives so important, important enough that one of them is at the top of my blog? Because you know a story has been successful when it touches someone’s heart – when it produces an emotional reaction, whether that be tears, laughter, or a simple smile. And the only stories that touch hearts are the meaningful ones, the ones with not only a great plot, but stellar characters, too.

After all of this, you might think that I have something against plot. Not at all! But in today’s world, I think it’s important to first acknowledge that plot is secondary to characters because this truth will actually make your plot better.

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s the bottom line for plot: don’t make it complicated. It’s true that your plot should be unique, but what that really means in the storytelling world is that you do a unique spin on something that’s already been done. That’s why we have genres and even more detailed labels for stories underneath the genre umbrellas. You can’t write a story that doesn’t fit in a category because, in a sense, it’s all been done before – but don’t despair!

It’s actually comforting to know that you can simplify any plot into a type of trope. Here are just a few: “small, unimportant person defeats a giant evil and saves the world,” “cocky, arrogant guy falls for sweet, pure girl,” and “big-time action dude has to take on an unexpected responsibility that brings out his soft side.” Obviously, I could go on forever. The point is that your plot will stem from a known story. Probably the most difficult thing to get right in the plot is the balance between what the audience expects from your type of story and surprising the audience with your own twists. Too much of either one and you risk either boring your readers or giving them a story they didn’t sign up for.

So don’t panic if your plot isn’t 100% original; no one’s will be. At their hearts, all plots are simple – the key is to figure out how your own imagination enhances the already familiar story.

Plot is vastly important but simpler than you think, and a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you with models like Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, and Story Grid. Just remember characters first, plot second, and you’re almost guaranteed success.

Happy writing!
-E.J.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll consider donating to the blog and/or reading my stories on Vocal so I can continue to produce free content!


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Photo by anja. on Unsplash

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