Rule #2: The Plot is Not the Story

I have read a number of books in my life, and I could categorize them into three broad headings.

First, there are the books that I want to read again and again.  They have impacted me in some profound way that makes me want to experience those books again, because they have more to offer me.

Second, there are books that I have read once, put down, and never really thought of again.  They were not bad books, I simply had other books I would rather read.

Third, there are books that just plain annoyed me.  They were painful for me to read, and in some cases, I have not even been able to finish the book.  I have no desire to ever read them again.

What would cause a book to fall into one of these three categories?  I would attribute it to the difference between the plot and the story.  What is the difference?  My definitions are as follows: the plot is what happens in the book.  It includes everything the characters experience.  The story is what happens because of the book.  It includes everything the readers experience.

The first thing that I take away from this distinction is that, in most books, virtually the entire plot is told directly in the book.  There may be some details that are left ambiguous, so the readers need to fill in the blanks for themselves.  But even in these books, the plot is completely in the control of the author.  The story, however, is created by the interaction of the words in the book with the readers’ imaginations, dreams, and previous experiences.  Obviously the author can only control half of this equation.

So why do I care about the story, if I can’t control it?  Well, I think an author can still have quite a lot of control over the story of a book, but how?

I think one of the most important factors in the story is character development.  If the characters are real, then readers can relate to them.  If readers can relate to the characters, they want to know what happens to them.  They laugh with them, cry with them, hurt for them, celebrate for them.  If characters are shallow or solely ridiculous, they may still serve entertainment value, but the readers will have a much harder time caring whether they succeed at what they are trying to accomplish.  In fact, the readers may even be rooting for those kinds of characters to fail.

Perhaps some literary examples will help to illustrate.

I love Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  I have yet to read a book by either of them that does not qualify for the first category.  One thing that is interesting to me is that there are not typically epic adventures in their books.  No one is racing off to save the world.  With a few notable a exceptions, their plots generally consist of events that could happen to just about anyone at any time.  And yet, they are some of the most compelling books I have read.  Why?  Because when the characters are real, the readers will follow them wherever they go, whether it is across the universe or across the room.  I also read a lot of fantasy, and find that a character does not need to be human to be real.

Another example is Harry Potter.  First, full disclosure.  Yes, I read all the books.  Yes, I found them entertaining.  No, I would not put them in category one.  They would fall more in the second category for me.  Why?  I think the story in the books is fairly strong.  The interaction between the characters is very spot on.  But I thought the plot was weak.  I found each book to be a little too formulaic and the overall series too predictable.  Yet despite these flaws that I perceived in the plot, I continued to read, because I was interested in the characters.  I had invested too much in those characters to not find out what happened to them.  But when I had finished, I did not necessarily want to read them again.

This brings up another important point.  As hard as I try as an author, I may not reach every reader.  Don Quixote, for example, I gave back to the library after I had read about a third of the way through.  I had simply had enough of a stupid man almost getting himself killed.  It wasn’t even entertaining to me.  It fell into my third category.  Yet there are many people who might place it into the first.

One other thing to note is that while the plot is not the story, the plot does influence the story.  Obviously, a good plot will help to tell the story, though if the readers cannot relate to any of the characters, the plot may not be enough to keep them reading.

Now what do I do about it?  How can I craft a good story?  First, I need to know the characters.  If I, the author, do not know my characters, how will the readers?  Second, I need to consider what is the message of the book.  I had a teacher in a speech class who told us to use the “so what” test when writing our speeches.  She said we should imagine the audience asking, “so what?”  We needed to make sure that we answered that question in the speech instead of forcing the audience to actually ask it.  When I write, I need to take the time every once in a while to step back and ask, “so what?”  Why do the readers want to know this?  Why do they want to keep reading?  What does it mean?

And the readers’ answers will likely be different from mine.  But that is one of the joys of reading.  While everyone gets the same plot every time, the story is personalized to each reader, and is new every time you read it.

Rule #1: Write!

Okay, everyone hates self-referential rules.  And this is clearly circular logic: if you want to write well, the first thing you need to do is write.

That being said, I have found that I have a tendency to avoid things that I would like to do, but I’m not sure if I can do them well.  It primarily stems from fear.  I am afraid to try and fail.  So instead, I procrastinate.  Then I can convince myself that I have the best of both worlds: I haven’t failed, but I haven’t given up either.  I’ll just do it later.  Well, “later” never seems to come.  The adage “practice makes perfect” is a bit of an oversimplification, but it also contains truth.  In order to be good at something, most people have to practice.

Footnote a to rule #1: write a lot.

Let me diverge a little.  I once went on a mission trip to Brazil.  I was going to spend two years there, so it was important to speak Portuguese.  I had an instructor who once said to the class that before we could speak Portuguese well, we would need to make some number of mistakes.  Now, lets assume for the sake of argument that the number of mistakes is 1000.  He said that we had a choice.  We could go out and speak as much as possible and make those 1000 mistakes in a few weeks, or we could close our mouths, take two years to learn the language and never be able to communicate with natives while we were in Brazil.

In a similar fashion, there is bad writing in every writer.  It is not a reflection of the ability of the writer, but simply a fact that not every word you write will be a Gettysburg Address.  Unfortunately, if the bad writing never comes out, it becomes lodged in the writer’s cerebral cortex, and can overcome all writing.  So, you have to let it out.  The bright side: unless it is a writing assignment for some class, you never have to show the bad writing to anyone.  But don’t throw it away without at least reading it through first.  There may be something valuable in it, one phrase, one idea in pages of garbage.  There may be entire sections that would be good with a little reworking, but even if there isn’t anything worth keeping, getting it out of the way frees up your mind for the good stuff.

Addendum to Footnote a: Write a lot, even when every word is not pure Shakespeare.

One further analogy.  I used to play basketball quite often, but I was never what you might call a shooter.  My problem was, the way I held the ball and moved me hands when shooting were not exactly the most conducive to directing the ball into the basket.  I remember a friend telling me that if you have bad form, just shooting free throws again and again will not help you.  You will simply be reinforcing bad habits.

So how do you know if you have “bad form” in your writing, and what can you do to fix it?  There are any number of writing classes at colleges across the world that can teach grammar, spelling syntax, and even give insights into subtler details such as craft.  But there is a simpler (and cheaper) way.

Rule 1.1: Read

And read a lot.  Read a wide variety of authors and styles, but it is most important to read other works directed to your target audience.  If you want to write a spy novel for children, you should read spy novels written for children.  It is not necessary to do any formal analysis of the books, but it is necessary to think critically about them.  What worked well, what didn’t?  The more you read, you will develop a sense of what you like, and it will make writing easier.

In future posts, I will discuss various exercises or games that can also be used to home writing skills, and stay tuned for Rule #2…

A little history…

I have always had a secret dream.  I want to be an author.  Now, if any English teacher I have ever had is reading this, please try to overcome your shock and read on.  Yes, I have had difficulties writing.  That is, I have difficulty in writing at length.  Even now, I write reports in my work as an engineer, and I am known as the king of concise.  I am actually quite good at saying what needs to be said in as few words as possible.  So, why would I want to write books?

Quite simply, I have something to say.  And I think there are people out there who would like to hear.  I may be wrong.  I might end up only talking to myself.  But that’s fine also.

I’m getting ahead of myself here.  My ambition to write was a secret.  I had many, many ideas, which I developed into elaborate story lines in my head, but translating those ideas onto paper was a problem.  I recall one pivotal moment where I decided that enough was enough, I was going to finally commit those stories to paper.  I sat down and stared at a blank piece of paper for about half an hour.  Not one word would come.  I was forced to the conclusion that I simply could not be an author.  So let go of my dream, and it retired to some dank corner of my brain.

Time moved on (which is something that is does rather well).  I got married.  My wife and I would tell stories together to her niece and nephew.  And the stories were pretty good, if I do say so myself.  I would come up with complicated plot twists, and she would resolve them.  One day, she made the suggestion that we could write stories for children together.  Thus a new dream began.

I learned some things from this dream that we were sharing.  First, a dream that is too big for one person may be just right for two.  While there are many things that I cannot do, together my wife and I form an extremely talented duo that could do just about anything.  Second, dreaming is not necessarily about achieving, it is about reaching.  From its little corner on my mind, my old dream started to stir.

Eventually, my wife became the first to hear of my hidden aspiration.  She was not sure if I was serious.  Then I started telling her my ideas.  And she started adding her own ideas.  Our stories mingled and became better.  For the first time, I was able to write them down.

Life happened (which is something it does very well).  Both of us were going to school.  We had a baby.  We moved across the country.  I began my career.  We had another baby.  I started grad school.  We both knew that we needed to write, but we always told ourselves we would do it later.  I have come to understand what later actually means, at least to me: an indefinite time frame in the future that allows me to justify to myself that I’m not not doing something, I’m just not doing it yet.  I knew that I needed to get going.

Then, a friend of ours published a book.  (You can read about it here.)  I not only enjoyed the book, but she also posted on her website the number one secret for how to get started in writing.  You write.  Some secret, huh?  Well, I was not doing it, and I needed to be.  Here’s to new beginnings.