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.