Plot is NOT Story

Every so often, someone I meet in the writing community casually drops a nugget of truth like an asteroid from orbit. When the revelation hits ground zero, it changes the shape of my understanding of craft and story. Though my first reaction is often frustration, mostly directed at myself, these moments of cataclysmic learning leave me energized and inspired to work harder.

This year, Toni Weisskopf (the publisher of Baen Books) was a guest teacher at the Superstars Writing Seminar. During a Q&A session after one of her talks, Toni delivered one of these nuggets of truth. “Plot,” she said with nonchalance, “is not story.”

This distinction explains why most young writers crash and burn while trying to answer the question, “So, what’s your book about?” After all, the most common response seems to be to launch into a convoluted explanation of every single minutia of the plot and backstory. I’ve experienced this from both sides, and often the listener’s eyes begin to glaze over within thirty seconds. By the second minute, the individual is usually considering manufacturing a death in the family or gnawing off a limb to escape.

Someone who asks you about your story isn’t interested in an outline. If they were, they would’ve asked about your plot. Instead, they want to know your book’s essence. Stories are the human experience the plot conveys. They have the emotional draws to touch people despite racial, socioeconomic, and political boundaries. What the question seeks to uncover are the elements that will keep readers flipping pages.

Sometimes identifying the story in your own work can be challenging. To practice, I took time to think about my favorite stories and described them. I then looked for elements common to all the descriptions.

  • Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings is about a hobbit named Frodo who has to carry the ultimate evil of his world across a continent in order to destroy it. With every step he takes, the Ring of Power tries to corrupt and destroy him back.
  • The original trilogy of Star Wars is about a farm boy named Luke who finds out that he’s a space wizard and sets out to overthrow an evil empire that killed his aunt and uncle.
  • Wreck It Ralph is a movie about a video game bad guy named Ralph who sets out to prove to himself and everyone around him that he isn’t such a bad guy after all.

Though these summaries may seem like vast oversimplifications of the plots involved, they represent the core elements of each of the stories. In one or two sentences, I have described a character, defined a conflict and at least hinted at the protagonist’s motivation or goal. By keeping the description short, I am able to keep my audience’s attention, peak their interest, and encourage them to ask me follow up questions. Most importantly, by focusing on story I appeal to my audience’s humanity and turn the pitch into a conversation.


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