Do I Have to Have a Plot?

Do I Have I Have a Plot?

Finding the Perfect Place to Start

June 18, 2020
Some writers hesitate to talk about plot because they believe it equates to pre-planning their stories. For the organic or seat-of-the-pants writer, pre-planning simply doesn't work for the way story unfolds in their heads. They need to be telling themselves the story fresh as they write. In fact, there is nothing about being an organic writer that is antithetical to the finished book having a strong plot.

In reality, the main difference between being an organic writer and being someone who does their plot planning ahead is in how much time you want to spend in revision. Organic writers often end up with much longer word counts on the first draft and stories that need rewriting to bring out the clear plot and cut away the parts that don't serve the story. That rewriting and cutting takes time. It's like carving an amazing sculpture out of a block of marble. For those who do a lot of pre-planning, there is usually less of that extraneous material and less digging to find what you want to say. That doesn't mean pre-planners get to skip revision––not at all––but there does tend to be less. Of course, the time you skip at the end has really only been moved to the beginning as the pre-planner lays out the bones of the story before beginning the actual writing.

Is Plot Antithetical to Art?

Some writers don't like the idea of having a plot at all. They feel most comfortable with a quieter book that simply explores a theme through a character. That kind of thinking, in the hands of a truly skilled and poetic writer, can result in a beautiful book (especially in the adult market). Usually the book by a skilled author does end up with a really clear structure and progression, just not one that adheres to our classic views on plot action, climax, and resolution.

The problem isn’t that a writer sometimes uses an unusual structure. Instead, the problem only occurs when a writer eschews plot mostly because (1) the writer doesn't understand plot or (2) the writer doesn't want to do the work. A book that is completely without structure can sometimes be an interesting experiment, but it usually won't work terribly well for younger readers as they can find such unstructured books slow or confusing. Structure helps a reader make connections and predictions, which help in the reading process. Often these connections and predictions are made without specific conscious intent by the reader, but when the reader feels the story moving toward something, they often inwardly define what they expect that something to be and it helps them engage with the story.

Consider This
Suppose you want to write a novel about a road trip with a grandfather and his grandson. You don't immediately see this as having any specific plot beyond it being a road trip. Maybe you clearly see the grandfather. He wants to pass on stories about the places he's been in his life and the struggles or joys he met in those places. The grandfather wants to do this because his memory is failing, and he knows he'll soon lose all those things, so he wants the boy to have them. But all of this might not be clear or obvious to the boy. To him, he's just going on a road trip with the grandfather he loves instead of spending another dull summer at home wishing he had more friends.

So this might seem to lack the traditional structure of plot. The boy isn't resisting the trip. He wants to go. The grandfather may have some struggles along the way when he has bad days, but overall, he's doing okay. So would the only structure be the road map of places? What kind of plot would that be? Potentially, a pretty clear one, if not a completely traditional one.

Plot Elements: Agency
Well, what do we ask of plot? The main character needs agency in plot. In our story idea, he's just going along with the idea of a road trip. But that very choice of going along, of accepting the coming trip is an act of agency. He's making a choice. Not all choices have to be difficult ones. They simply have to be choices that would have resulted in a different story and a different outcome without that choice. If the boy had not been so open, he might not be as changed by the trip as he's sure to be. Then, along the way, the boy will need other opportunities for agency, other decisions he must make that will affect him and his grandfather and the journey they are on. This may seem like merely character exploration but it’s also a key element of plot.

Plot Elements: Conflict
The boy doesn't have to be in conflict with a person for a story to have conflict. No road trip goes without problems. And no attempt for an older person to pass on memories to a young person goes without a hitch. You have problems, breakdowns, and miscommunication in real life, so you'd have them here if the story ultimately feels real and right. Far in the future, the boy might remember the weeks on the road far more idyllically, but in the moment, they were sometimes boring, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes upsetting.

So the conflicts in this story could be interpersonal, growing from two generations communicating, even with the bridge of love and respect between them. The conflict could be circumstantial, especially if we mix in bad days in the grandfather's memory and potential bad moments on the trip (cars can break down, traffic can halt for hours at a time, bathroom and food stops can mix in some physical discomfort, discount motels can bring their own minor horrors). Every time you discomfort a character, you are introducing an element of plot because discomfort leads to conflict, even if only mild conflict.

Plot Element: Tension
Like conflict, tension can grow out of the normal difficulties of such a road trip. (Are we going to find a bathroom out here? Are we lost? Do I have to eat that?) In our imagined story, we add an extra layer of tension as the grandfather is working with the pressure of a ticking clock. He desperately wants to pass these memories to the boy before he loses them, and this trip is the only time he can do it. He feels the deadline in every minute. So what if he does get lost or forgets where he was when this defining moment happened? How does he deal with it? How does his grandson?

Plot Element: Growth and Change
In our imagined story, if we write it well, the plot element of growth and change is sure to happen. Let's think about this boy. He loves and admires his grandfather. He might not even know his grandfather is sick. (in fact, that would be likely. If his folks knew, they probably wouldn't have okayed this road trip in the first place, so the diagnosis was probably a secret.) But during the weeks of the trip, he's going to get clues, and he's going to figure it out. And it's going to change him. Plus, the experiences his grandfather shares are probably going to be a mixed bag of the profound and the innocuous, but they are all going to be important to the grandfather. Thus the boy is going to begin to see his grandfather, not just as a doting grandfather, but as a child and as a young man and as a younger adult as we travel. He is going to come to know the grandfather in a much more complex and mature way. He is going to be dragged into more maturity simply because he helps his grandfather on the tough days. So the story is going to have elements of “coming of age” and that’s a sort of plot structure too.

Finally
Keep in mind that plot is not one simple formula and that's it. It's the interplay of elements to explore ideas and themes, but with enough clear structure that readers can engage with the story, make connections, and predict where the story may be going. Like the trip with grandfather and grandson, the journey has an end spot. As with some real life journeys, it may not end where you expected, but it won't simply trail off either. As long as you have specific plot elements, markers for your journey, the ending will come to you.

Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.

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