The best stories are about something. They aren’t just plot. There’s more there than “stuff happens.”
I’ve heard it described that the best stories have plot and story. Plot is the stuff that happens. Story is what it’s about.
This Just Write video explains it beautifully. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend you check it out.
An example, stolen from the video:
In Lord of the Rings, the plot is about Frodo taking the Ring to Mount Doom and all the stuff that it takes to get him there.
The story is about resisting the temptation of power and the power of friendship.
Now, why am I bringing this up?
Your writing needs to have both.
You must have plot. Stuff needs to happen. If the entirety of your epic novel describes a character sitting in a chair and staring out the window, you have no plot. You might have some very interesting thoughts. It might be beautiful prose, perhaps even poetic. But what you have doesn’t take the reader anywhere.
Plot gives the reader something to hold on to. What is this character trying to do? What’s getting in the way? What do the relationships look like?
In my upcoming novel, The Keeper of Tales, stories themselves are alive. Adal knows that he needs to tell certain stories and follow their forms to succeed. However, the stories themselves seem to be fighting against him. What’s going on? In the course of the novel, he travels across the face of the world, makes new friends, and meets legends. That’s all plot. If I didn’t have that plot, I’d have a philosophical treatise. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but it wouldn’t be a novel!
Story gives the plot life. It makes the novel mean something. What is it all about?
In my novel, Adal must grapple with what stories are for. He had held them in high esteem, but through the course of the novel, he needs to confront whether or not stories themselves are good things. If stories teach hate, should they be held on to? How do you determine if a story is good or bad? It’s not always so clear!
If you didn’t have a story, you might have a 400 -page fight scene. It gets the blood pumping, but why are the characters fighting? Who should I cheer for? Why should I care about them? It might be a great fight scene, but that’s all it is.
Take a look at your writing. Does it have both?
I’ve found that writers tend to lean one way or another. Most of us write one relatively naturally without having to think about it. The other we usually need help with.
I noticed in my short stories, I tended to lean more heavily into plot. And yet, as I wrote, I saw that some of the short stories were better. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I realized: Those short stories I preferred weren’t just plot. They had story to go with the plot.
So I needed to pay more attention to story. What is this plot about? Why should I care?
I’d like to think I’ve gotten significantly better now that I know to watch for it. Watch your own writing. Work on the balance between the two. As you do, your writing will grow!