Plot vs. Story

My day job is as a graduate student. In that life, I’m writing a dissertation on nineteenth-century popular American literature. The creative writing is an outlet for things that won’t fit in my dissertation and a solution for occasional bouts of paralyzing writer’s block. But beyond that, writing novels has taught me things about fiction that reading it — professionally, obsessively — for years hasn’t.

One of those lessons is that plot and story, which I had thought were interchangeable terms for the same thing, are very different creatures. Story is what happens between a set of characters in a discrete period of time. Plot is always, by definition, an artificial framework that you tap the story into. It’s a frame for a novel’s who, why, what, and how.

I am almost, ALMOST, done with the first draft a novella that I’ve been writing since late June, the project I’ve been calling Brave in Heart. I decided to write  a novella because my first full length novel, Together is Enough, had (and has) a lot of plotting problems that I wasn’t sure how to fix. I needed to play more with writing fiction and attempting something shorter (32,000 words versus 70,000+ words) seemed like a good way to do it. I made a bad call, however, because the shorter length requires an even more perfect plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I had to make story tweaks too. For example, does a novel opening in the right place? Are the characters making the most interesting choices given how I’ve defined them?

Mostly, however, what my writing needed was plot fixes. Where, if anywhere, should the backstory go? Do we need to see more or less between major scenes?

Writing a novella did not turn out to be either easier or faster than writing a novel. (Though in my defense, another novel got in the way and ate up half my writing time.) It did give me a different perspective on the puzzle-box that is plotting.

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