Story First, Then Plot

by | Jul 9, 2021 | Thoughts on Writing | 0 comments

A novelist should be excited, a ‘thing of fevers and enthusiasms’, Ray Bradbury once wrote. How does this ‘fever’ come about? The source is a story you have a passion to tell, a story you must tell. Absent this, writing will be flat and aimless. This has led me to believe that ‘writer’s block’ is perhaps better described as ‘story block’. If there is no story, then what is there to write? A story is what the novel is about while a plot is what happens. Once you have the story, then ‘writer’s block’ begins to fade. At least that was my experience.

A famous author once wrote that ‘finding the stories is not the hard part, writing them down is’. I suggest this may be backwards, or perhaps not quite complete. Finding stories can be the hard part and, once you have one, writing it down is the easier part. Moreover, it may also be the case the story finds you. I found it was all too easy to confuse a story with an idea for a book, Ideas come and go. Perhaps this is what that this author had in mind. There is a distinction between an idea for a novel and a story to tell. One instills a passion to be written, the other is not much different than writing to for the Sunday magazine. One idea that came to mind was the lost concept of honor and how there was a time when it was within the law to challenge someone to a duel to the death if that honor was questioned. Much has changed, not to mention the concept of having honor. When was the last duel legally fought, by whom and for what reason? Were pistols at ten paces precursors of the classic Western street gunfight? And so on. In the end it was filed away for another day, as ideas often are.

A story is something more than an idea. It is more an emotional craving and less a dispassionate concept. It is driven by some personal truth and one you may not have been aware you have. I believe it is even arguable that you can only know something is true through the act of writing. This is what is I believe Oscar Wilde meant by saying anything worth knowing cannot be taught, it comes from within. The more this becomes clear then the more inspired, and inspiring, the writing will be.

Finding the story is not easy, at least one that fills you with ‘enthusiasms’. But once you have one then the writing should become easier. The more commanding and clear its message, the easier it ought to be to ‘write down’. At the risk of a cliché, I wrote to learn what happened next. For me it was all about the having that story first. How it all then might unfold is the plot. A plot can have many tweaks, but there is only the one story.

John Goodricke’s life needed more of a telling, at least as far as I was concerned. It was easy to find accounts of his work in history of science journals where his deafness is only briefly mentioned. Goodricke’s Time is just as much about the experience of deafness, and the struggle to teach the deaf, it is as much about his experience of adjusting to his deafness than it is about astronomy. One point about having a story. It helps to tell someone in thirty seconds. You are on an elevator. Another passenger joins you and asks, ‘what is your story?’ and before they exit, you tell them. For Goodricke’s Time it is What is most important in life? Young Goodricke, despite his deafness or perhaps even because of it, could tell you.

A perceptive reader was once asked was Goodricke’s idea of what was most important in life what I thought? Was it some disclosure on my part? His answer, after all, did come from me, not him. How well could I understand something so personal to someone who lived in a different culture over two hundred and thirty-five years ago? Goodricke was a character in my novel. I could not have him behave, have him appear authentic unless some strong idea of his personality was held. How close it is to the actual John Goodricke no one can say. I can say that it fits with Goodricke’s personality as described in Goodricke’s Time. When writing dialogue, it is critical to have a clear and consistent idea of the personalities of the characters. The purpose of the plot is to develop the story, to make it come to life. Plot is what happens. It is the sequence of events inside a story. What is the correct placement or order of these events? What drives the plot? Does the reader care and want to turn the page? What part do characters play in driving the plot? How does one go about making a character pop off the page? These are some things discussed in my next post.